The survey revealed by the BBC is one of the most shocking I have read in my time in Parliament.
If the findings of a sample of 17,000 officers are replicated across the workforce, it would mean as many as 116,000 thousand police officers have experienced a traumatic event, a staggering 24,000 officers in the last four weeks alone have experienced symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, 16 thousands of those undiagnosed.
In a service where one the many sad but inevitable duties is to respond to traumatic events, to have those levels of undiagnosed traumatic mental health conditions, is nothing short of a crisis.
For those, like me, who have never experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is as well to look carefully at the symptoms and listen to the testimonies from those who have. Then consider how on earth we can ask our officers to fight this battle alone, without the support they need.
Lee Jackson, a Police Constable, was once impaled on a broken car aerial responding to a car crash. In 2015, he attended a domestic violence dispute alone and ended up being attacked and had one of his eyes gauged leaving him with temporary blindness. It left him with night terrors and anxiety, the consequences of dozens of traumatic incidents throughout his service in the force. When he finally sought help, he was diagnosed with PTSD.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, PTSD has a profound physical effect on the brain. High levels of the stress hormone, adrenaline, effectively stop the part of the brain responsible for memory from working properly. They describe it as “blowing a fuse” leaving us to vividly remember and relive frightening events. That means trauma can’t be processed because nightmares and flashbacks continue. This can leave you feeling grief-stricken and anxious or depressed, vividly reliving the event or events during the day and terrors at night. Ordinary things can trigger a flashback and you can become ‘hypervigiliant’ constantly on guard. It is exhausting, debilitating and those experiencing PTSD will often avoid triggers that could bring back painful memories.
For serving officers and many other emergency service workers, who have suffered multiple traumatic events, it is impossible to avoid those triggers. Every call through on the radio, every routine job, could bring traumatic memories flooding back. Today, according to the survey, many thousands of police officers are doing their duty fighting the symptoms and the triggers of PTSD without a diagnosis.
It is a grim irony and perhaps no coincidence that a condition which leads us to try to push things out of our minds, has itself been pushed to the back of the collective mind of the police service. But reducing stigma and encouraging officer to access support cannot on its own be enough, when the problem itself is symptomatic of a broader crisis in policing.
The pressure on the police service after nine years of brutal cuts isn’t just being felt on the streets. Officer wellbeing has been one of the biggest casualties of austerity in the police. With support services inadequate and referrals patchy, many officers under such pressure they simply do not consider psychological support. That’s the thing about policing, they will go above and beyond to support their colleagues and to plug the gaps. But it has a cost and the cost is their own wellbeing.
As the Inspectorate of Constabulary found last week, this increased pressure is increasing the number of sick days they take or causing them to work while ill. Senior police leaders promote wellbeing, but workforces don’t feel the benefits. Sometimes staff and officers can’t access support because of lack of awareness, staff shortages, and the volume and pressures of work.
The Government have let down our public servants and fuelled a crisis in mental health amongst them, when they slashed the police as demand rose. These are the consequences. There isn’t time to wait for a Spending Review that may never come; the Home Office must convene a summit urgently to bring together police chiefs and rank & file officers to put in place support services fit for our public servants and start to reduce the overwhelming demand on the police.