Dear Sir / Ma'am,
I write this open letter to the supervisors of the police service.
I am a police sergeant with 28 years service. I have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and Fibromyalgia. In the last two years I have reported sick for two extended periods as a result of this diagnosis. As a tool for self reflection, but also as a means of helping others I have been writing a blog detailing my experiences and describing the struggles I have with my mental health.
This process has led to me making contact with numerous fellow officers and sufferers who are spread out over many force areas. They have shared their local experiences of suffering with mental health to me and without exception they have described how let down they feel, they have been vilified, unsupported some have even told me they cannot face telling anybody at work at all due to the perceived climate of mistrust and stigma.
These officers have left me to wanting to ask you some pertinent questions. They won't make me popular with you, they won't endear me to anybody but they might just prick at your conscience enough to consider making some changes.
As a police officer with senior rank in the police service do you feel you have a reasonable knowledge of mental illness? Not so much in regards of our service users but in respect of us the service providers, i.e. your staff?
For instance if someone asked you to describe the symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD to your peers, could you? Would you recognise these symptoms in a colleague I wonder?
If you believe you do have this knowledge and understanding of mental illnesses, would you consider you are also able to empathise with these officers/staff who are suffering from mental health issues?
Does your force support officers / staff who voluntarily come forward to notify their supervisors that they are suffering with mental illness if they do not need to take sick leave?
Have you put policies and procedures in place to ensure officers / staff are protected from stigma and career blighting hostilities' that exist in the police service of today?
If an officer or staff member who is at this very moment struggling with their mental health and is in need of support and guidance in your force area who would be there to assist them?
If an officer under your command rang in sick today and cited depression and/or anxiety what would your force welfare support entail?
Are you signed up with MIND and their Blue Light campaign? Are you aware of the charities nationally reaching out to mentally ill police officers?
Do you have a buddy scheme, ready access to counselling services or advice leaflets/apps for staff?
If you are of a rank above constable within the police service and you manage staff, and you truthfully hand on heart were to swear an oath on somebody you love dearly and then answer these questions, would you be content for your answers to be published openly for your staff to read? Think about that a minute... pure honesty...publicly?
28 years ago when I joined the police service, the place female officers held within the service was wholeheartedly different from today. Attitudes had to change, people were re-educated. If many high ranking officers had been asked a similar set of questions relating to female police officers back in the 'old days' I am fairly confident their answers if read out today, would be perceived as sexist, draconian and quite probably subject to the Standards of Professional Behaviour.
Today, in the here and now, the police service must face another battle and this time over mental health issues. The service has to take a long hard look at the way the vast proportion of police officers / staff are being dealt with and discriminated against if they suffer from any mental health illnesses.
In these times of cuts backs, falling staff numbers, media pressures and harsh criticisms which come our way on frankly daily basis, which with the best will in the world will always feel personal then you add to that mix our historic and unhealthy dose of existing PTSD plus further trauma laden workloads the numbers of police officers suffering from mental health illnesses is only going to increase and let me tell you from where I am sitting it is pretty damn high already.
If you answered that you knew what mental illness was, and could recognise it in a colleague would you also understand what it is a sufferer needs from you as a result? Because knowing, understanding and then in turn empathising are all poles apart from each other, all requiring enhanced skill sets.
Do you know what policies and procedures exist in your force for officers/staff suffering from mental health illnesses, are there any at all? What support could you direct a sufferer to if necessary? What does your welfare department do for people suffering with depression and anxiety?
So far in seven weeks, I have had £30 of M&S vouchers sent to me from our welfare fund in an envelope with the standard typed letter. I have not had any contact from a person in the welfare department offering me support.
I was summonsed within two weeks to occupational health where as mentioned in previous blog I was asked to explain my depression whilst crying solidly for an hour. I was told everything I said was going to be divulged to my supervisors. I was told wearing make-up showed I wasn't that depressed! I saw a nurse/practitioner who is not specifically mentally health trained and I am seeing her again tomorrow. I also have a case conference with HR, my supervision, welfare and my fed rep on Thursday to discuss my sickness absence. (stand-by for a blast of hot air on Friday covering both!)
There are many of you out there that tut and roll your eyes at the mention of someone suffering with stress or depression. I have watched you, I have listened to you and your derogatory, belittling comments. I have worked for you whilst you blindly ignore my mental health. I have waited patiently for some form of peer support group to be launched, I have expected some interaction with Mind's Blue Light campaign. I am still waiting, whilst us sufferers are shunned, we are put in the too difficult category and clearly we are not believed by some senior officers.
For if you are a non believer in Mental Health and you don't 'get it' or even want to try and 'get it' and I say to you that I suffer with my mental health, you cannot possibly believe that I am ill can you? You must therefore think when I am signed off sick that I am actually swinging the lead, skiving, having a paid holiday? You certainly cannot think that I am going through hell and clinging on to my sanity by a tiny thread.
Officers recount to me senior officers ensuring that they lose their specialist posts, senior officers blindly moving sufferers from their sections/departments or even off into a broom cupboard. Some senior officers ignore officers/sufferers who have identified in themselves a need for some respite in order to remain healthy. It takes bottle and bravery to ask to move out of a traumatic role either temporarily or permanently so why would you leave them high and dry, out on a limb getting more poorly until eventually they do end up reporting sick? Is this any way to motivate and support your staff when they are ill? Clearly not which brings me back to my original point, this is how skivers and lead swingers are punished, held accountable isn't it?
Therefore it is clear that you do not think these officers are ill, you do not believe they are suffering desperately and in need of support do you?
Shame on you, the very foundations of our service was firmly rooted in us all belonging to a police family, with shared ideals and values, yet this seems a fact readily ignored if not glossed over.
Sir/Ma'am, when it comes to mentally ill police officers/staff, are you and the police family who follow your guidance really quite happy to leave us out here in the cold, to walk away from us, to turn your backs on us, to pretend 'our sort' don't exist for fear of being tainted by our demons I wonder?
The bottom line is officers/staff are suffering in silence for fear of the retribution they will face for acknowledging they have a mental illness, if they do open up they suffer the consequences of at best a total lack of understanding/empathy and at worst non-belief and being labelled accordingly. The stigma has to end and only the officers of your rank and standing can make that happen.
I do not profess to have all the answers but I can and do recognise the problems at hand in regards of the police service and its numerous suffering police officers, do you?
It is one thing to talk the talk, management speak if you like, however it is an entirely different thing altogether to walk the walk. Can you help change the service, can you help end the stigma?
Let's see some real change please?
A Depressed, Anxious, Sergeant from a force near you.