18 May 2022
DISCLAIMER: This article references suicide and suicidal thoughts. An expose of the effects of trauma and mental health on police officers. If you require help and support, please contact the Samaritans:
National Board member Belinda Goodwin led a session at PFEW’s Annual Conference 2022, looking at the effects of trauma and mental health on officers. Joining the panel was Adele Owen QPM, Greater Manchester Suicide Prevention Programme, Hilda Palmer, Facilitator of Families Against Corporate Killers, Andy Rhodes QPM, Service Director of the National Police Welfare Service and former police officer, Ed Simpson.
The session highlighted lived experiences of those experiencing mental health and the stories of those who have tragically taken their lives as a result. Looking at what could have been done differently and addressing the future work that needs to be done around prevention, the panel explored the support that Federation branches and key stakeholders are providing towards the mental health of police officers.
Former police officer Ed Simpson shared the story of how his mental health plummeted after attending a family liaison deployment, which left him contemplating taking his own life: “I had dealt with far worse looking back, but that was just the last time I was able to deal with it. My personal cup had overflown.
“I drove to work one morning and something in my head told me to kill myself. What should have been an irrational thought became totally rational. I made it to work, but the whole way I prayed for something to happen so I could get out and help. I wanted to die helping someone. I wanted my life to be worth something. I hated myself because I was still alive.
“I lasted another week after that incident before my body stepped in. I was massively mentally ill but it was my body physically breaking with shingles that brought me down and forced me to say I couldn’t go on. I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression and spent time off sick.
“Six months later, I got a call to say I was being put onto half pay. I already felt that I was worth nothing and this made me feel even less. What saved me was my son being born that very same day. I took the call about the half pay, stood in a supermarket aisle choosing nappies based on what I could now afford and it was at that exact moment I fell out of love with policing.
“I did another three years on restricted duties and one day someone said to me ‘Ed, you’re done aren’t you?’ And I was. The dream was over. I am lucky I survived. I am glad I am here now and I am ok but the journey has ruined me. I will never be the same again.”
Hilda Palmer, Facilitator of Families Against Corporate Killers spoke passionately about the desperate need for the Health and Safety Executive to make work-related suicide reportable to allow for preventative measures to be put into place.
“These are heart-breaking, real-life stories and these are the stories that fuel the work I do. We believe that suicide is often caused or made worse by work related stress factors. Whilst suicide is personal and complicated, measures that can be taken to prevent it are not being taken.
“We will continue to fight to make work related suicide reportable. We have recently looked at a range of cases, including two police officers, two firefights and two members of the ambulance service, and found that impossible targets, long hours, workplace bullying and exposure to trauma and violence were all factors that led to the individuals taking their own lives in these cases. Only one of these six people had existing mental health issues.
“There is a lack of mental health support, a lack of recognition of PTSD, a lack of counselling and support and an inhumane lack of empathy. There is an emphasised culture of ‘if you’re a police officer, you deal with it, you suck it up’. There is just not enough action being taken to prevent suicide.”
Adele Owen QPM is the Programme Manager for the Greater Manchester Suicide Prevention programme, a role she took up after 21 years in policing.
She said: “Suicide can affect anyone, absolutely anyone. One in five people think of it in their lifetime. How many of these are police officers? We are not doing anyone any favours by not talking about it.
“There are so many myths out there with regards to suicide. We need suicide prevention training. Zero suicide alliance offer a free, twenty-minute training session on how to have a potentially life-saving conversation with someone you’re worried about, and there are many other courses available to workplaces and to individuals.
“The police culture is to not talk about these things, but we have to. People aren’t going to come forward when they are struggling if we don’t make a space for them to do so. The taboo and stigma has to go if we are going to save lives.”
National Police Welfare Service Director, Andy Rhodes QPM, spoke on the importance of national surveys for providing proof of the impact that work related stresses are having on police across England and Wales, as he looks forward to the introduction of a Chief Medical officer for policing.
“We now have evidence through research of the load that our officers are carrying.
“In policing, we have three times the level of work-related stress than any other occupation. The Police Covenant will see a Chief Medical Officer recruited, who can start influencing the system and putting action plans into place in collaboration with working groups.
“We don’t treat mental health the same way as we treat physical health, but we need to. Legally, ethically and morally, employers have responsibilities to support their employees and policing is no different.”
In his closing remarks, Ed said: “We have a really high tolerance in policing and sometimes that works against us, as we are stronger than we think. I wasn’t weak, but I was trained to be too strong. I have been in awe of people’s kindness ever since I began talking about my experience. We can teach by talking and letting people know what needing support looks like. Welfare starts with each other.”