The Mental Struggles Of An Experienced Officer
As an officer with over 10 unblemished years service I had been identified as being more than capable of, and had undertaken different specialist roles. I was also identified as a good candidate for promotion. Something that some of my line management team had been pushing for. That all changed following an on duty incident during which my safety was severely compromised, involving a stay in hospital and and a lengthy period of sick leave while I recovered from injury.
Prior to the incident I had raised concerns over the way things were being handled, however I was dismissed, told that my objections were noted, but I had been given a lawful order and I was to get on with it. I later raised the way the incident was handled with my line management team.
What followed was what can only be described as a prolonged campaign of bullying and thinly veiled threats over a period of several years which were aimed at suppressing my attempt at highlighting the conduct of certain managers that had contributed to the incident occurring.
Following a 3 year long enquiry and despite substantial findings which supported me. I was simply given a very vague apology and told that they would endeavour to do things better in the future.
Things never improved though, my career stalled and I was subjected to further wilful neglect and intense bullying. This ultimately led to my mental decline. I was suffering what I later discovered were prolonged panic attacks. I had numerous other mental symptoms, too numerous to mention. Over time the symptoms only increased in intensity and frequency which culminated in both suicidal and homicidal thoughts. I began experiencing other physical symptoms. At age 42 I developed asthma, I was so tense that my digestive system was unable to operate efficiently causing severe problems leading to agonising pain and rapid, and excessive weight loss, I experienced such levels of tension in my chest and back that I had difficulty breathing, resulting in blue light trips to hospital by ambulance and me being assessed for cardiac issues. My muscles became so tense that I would frequently strain them doing the simplest of routine tasks. However the physical symptoms paled to insignificance when I finally completely broke down mentally. Despite having everything to live for including being there for my two children, at my lowest point I was ready to take my own life and was only prevented from succeeding when my wife intervened. Following numerous visits at all hours to hospital I was finally assessed by two Community Psychiatric Nurses who identified my symptoms as being significant enough for me to be sectioned under the mental health act, not only for my safety, but also that of others who I viewed as being responsible for my decline. Such was the war being waged in my head that anything seemed rational and I would've acted without fear of consequence.
I was started on medication and referred to a specialist counsellor. At this point mentally I was so sick that my aim was simply to get through each day without harming myself or certain others. And hope that I could get more than a couple of hours sleep before waking up in a sweat from the recurring very vivid nightmares.
I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety and PTSD. My occupational health unit and personnel departments very quickly showed their ignorance towards mental health and seemed to think that them offering half a dozen generalised counselling sessions and a six month stint in a light duties role would be enough to sort me out. In reality that only served to increase my feelings of anxiety and isolation. Despite that, through the support of my GP, an appropriate counsellor, and a select few of my family and friends I was able to make progress. Small steps at first. But I got to the point where I was at least able to smile occasionally without forcing it and could begin to see a way that things could get better.
In time I began to separate the work issues from my private life. A by-product of this was that I developed certain phobias and found that I had to actively avoid anything that had even the slightest prospect of involving any kind of conflict. This is quite simply because the only responses left for me now are either fight or flight, I don't have any middle ground. This is something I have yet to overcome and continues to this day. I was once a good problem solver. Now I actively avoid becoming involved in any sort of situation.
I found that I was unable to even set foot in a police station and asked that any contact I had was by email (something that was initially refused). This was for a number of reasons, firstly due to the paranoia and deep mistrust I'd developed in anything police related. But mostly because I was unable to deal with matters without breaking down in tears. By having things in email I was able to leave it and return when I had composed myself. My short term memory was also badly effected. Having things in writing meant I could revisit them if necessary.
My aim was always to return to my role as a police officer. Ultimately as time went on I realised that in my particular circumstance to do so would have been severely damaging to my mental health.
With over 18 years service I left the police. I am now over 2 years on from that night when I almost took my own life. I am still not the person I used to be. My confidence is still easily knocked, I still have some nightmares and I still rely on some support to help me through some low points. I have other lasting effects as well. Insomnia for one, is ever present. That being said I am also able to have good days, I can recognise the value in them and take enjoyment from them again. I know I am different now. But it's a different that over time I have become comfortable with. I can look back and see just how far I have come. I can also look forward now with a degree of optimism while accepting those differences, and I can dare to dream again about what I'd like to achieve in the future. I still have days when things are not quite so good. But I know they will pass and I realise that it took many years for things to deteriorate to such an extent. I now understand that the healing process is slow. So things won't all change overnight.
It has been my experience that the cruelest thing about mental health is that unlike a physical ailment, it is the very thing that you depend upon to make sense of what is wrong that has been affected. Those dark thoughts, they were simply the illness working on me. That's what it does. It plays horrible, cruel tricks. It cons you into thinking bad thoughts. And tries it's best to convince you that you want to harm yourself. If I had succeeded in taking my own life then I'd have let the illness win.
Its been my experience that in time the symptoms gradually fade with help, that talking about how I was feeling was the first step to making things better. It helped me understand what was happening to me. And it gave me the tools needed to start fighting back. Nothing good happened for me until after I stopped trying to hide it.
It's exhausting constantly fighting against your own thoughts. And without a doubt it was the loneliest place I have ever been when I was trying to put on a brave face and keep the feelings to myself.
My symptoms were severe and I know that I am lucky to have survived. But I also know that I am not unique. Knowing what I went through has prompted several serving officers to confide in me about their own struggles and to seek guidance on how I managed to cope. In reality I didn't, at least not while I was trying on my own. It was only once I could no longer hide things and my symptoms became apparent that the help I so badly needed started to come. In hind sight I should have sought it far sooner. But being so ill the right path was far from obvious.
I find it difficult to put in words the value of having the correct support. But for me it was without exaggeration the difference between life and death.
I share my experience for two reasons. In the hope that those in a similar situation seek help. And also to serve as a reminder to those responsible for its provision of just how crucial the right levels of patience, support and understanding are at every level.