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Sick leave levels for officers experiencing mental health issues soar

Something needs to change, otherwise future remains bleak, warns Fed vice-chairman

Levels of mental health illnesses in the police service have risen by a shocking 55 per cent in the past six years, new figures reveal.

Nearly 10,000 officers had to take time off sick due to stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in the last year.

When Police Oracle first ran this survey for the financial year 2012/13, 6,294 UK police officers were signed off work with psychological illnesses – that number now stands at 9,672.

This was an increase of 405 officers on the previous year, according to a Freedom of Information Act request of all forces.

In Police Scotland 723 officers fell ill; 449 in the Police Service of Northern Ireland; while West Midlands Police had 601 police officers reporting stress, depression, anxiety and PTSD in the 2017/18 financial year.

The Met was unable to provide comparable figures but reported that 1,086 police officers were signed off sick with mental health illnesses in 2017.

Dorset, Essex and Nottinghamshire Police did not respond to the survey.

With 720 officers reporting mental ill health in the last financial year, compared with 590 the year before, Greater Manchester Police saw one of the highest increases at 22 per cent. 403 of these police officers reported they were suffering from stress, which according to their force’s federation, is brought on by the incredible level of demand they face.

Last year Police Oracle launched its BluePrint campaign which called on the government to meet its obligation of protecting our officers both in the job and when they have been forced out of the service because of physical injuries or mental trauma

Martin Lally, GMP Federation’s Health and Safety lead, said: “Our officers are under pressure every single day and the unfortunate truth and result of this is that officers’ wellness and their mental health is being affected.

“Not only do they need to deal with increased demand but they also have to face the possibility every single day that they may have to attend an extremely traumatic event, something that we have been no stranger to in Greater Manchester in these recent times.”

A total of 42 police officers reported symptoms of PTSD to the force. This is no surprise given the terrible events of the Manchester bombing in May 2017. Mr Lally added: “It was one of the most horrific incidents that the country has ever seen: 22 people were killed and whilst the public were running for safety, my colleagues were running towards danger.”

Mr Lally said the force now has one of the best peer support programmes in the country and under the force’s trauma risk management system, or TRiM for short, 31 officers of varying ranks have been trained in how to spot the signs of mental ill health and guide their colleagues to support.

But he added, that doesn’t change the fact that mental health issues are increasing and it is down to senior officers to do something about it. “I urge all senior leaders to look at what provision you supply, and ask - do you do enough? If you don’t then it’s not acceptable and it needs to change now because frontline officers are the foundation of policing day to day. Please give them the support they deserve without question.”

Attitudes are changing to mental health, policing professionals agree. People feel far more able to talk about the issues and there is less of a stigma than there has been in the past, according to the Police Federation of Northern Ireland - where officers are no stranger to PTSD.

Mark Lindsay, PFNI Chairman, told Oracle: “In Northern Ireland we have worked under severe terrorist threat both on and off duty for some time. Our members deal with people trying to murder them at work and targeting them off duty, and that adds to incidences of PTSD.”

The most commonly cited reason for illness was stress, with 284 police officers taking time off to recover; 100 police officers reported anxiety; 34 had PTSD; and 31 were suffering from depression.

The PFNI has invested £1million into mental health research and provision since 2016, which pays for more psychologists, support programmes and resilience projects.

The Federation is now implementing a preventative programme that teaches officers how to protect their own mental health.

Supervisors have been sent on suicide awareness schemes, so they know how to look out for officers. And officers can also attended wellbeing days, mindfulness classes, tai chi sessions and even cookery lessons to help them better understand how food and nutrition affects their health. To date 2,500 police officers have been through the programme.

Mr Lindsay added: “We are pleased with the response. We are doing all we can to help people cope with the stresses and strains of the job.”

Andy Rhodes, NPCC lead on wellbeing and Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary, said more needs to be done to help colleagues work through the traumatic events they witness: “It is high trauma occupation; police officers have to deal with high emotional labour. But trauma is only a problem if it goes unprocessed.”

Which is why Lancashire is going through a cultural shift to ensure people can talk about the events they have seen and their emotional response, he said.

“There is the example of the female police officer with 12 years service who, after Dale Cregan killed two officers in GMP, said she didn’t feel right at work any more. She spoke to her sergeant and was referred for support. Six sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy later and she was back out. We need to get this as the norm. Just as if you had a bad knee. The earlier we can support people to come forward, the better it will be for them. We don’t want it to end in crisis.”

Mr Rhodes said he understood it was not just about the nature of the Job, but also the workload, which he says is the responsibility for chiefs.

“It starts at the top. I set the tone, I ask if workloads are excessive. Are shift lessons conducive to wellbeing? Is that right? What am I doing about recruiting and promoting? And I set the right culture so that it is OK to talk about wellbeing and mental health.”

This is echoed by the Home Office. A spokesman said this week: “It is the responsibility of chief officers – supported by the College of Policing – to ensure the welfare of their staff.

“The Government takes the issue of police wellbeing very seriously and has invested in programmes, including targeted mental health support and £7.5million over three years for a dedicated national welfare service, to directly support officers.”

But all the occupational health and psychological support in the world won’t make a bit of difference unless fundamental changes are made to the demand facing the service, according to Ché Donald, Vice-Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales.

Mr Donald said: “It comes as absolutely no surprise to us that sickness figures are going up. Officers are still under increasing demand, numbers haven't changed and you’ve got a pressure cooker environment exacerbated by the job itself which involves exposure to traumatic incidents. Police officers are broken.

“If you don’t reduce the strain that officers are under, even with the best occupational health in the world, all you are going to have is steady stream of officers wanting to access that service. We know the causes but we are only tackling the symptoms.”

Without increasing the number of officers, reducing demand and balancing capacity, Mr Donald argues, nothing will change.

And day to day, officers, often working single-crewed, are finding themselves more alone than ever, which is bad news for wellbeing.

Mr Donald added: “We have increasing remote supervision with no ability to check on officer welfare. Your normal idea of policing is getting briefed and being in and out of station all day and having face-to-face dialogue. But because everyone is spread so thin and the number of police station closures, you have one sergeant working in the middle and officers working alone out in satellite locations.

“The only interaction that officer has is with victims or offenders. No one has the opportunity to check on that office and their wellbeing. There is no-one sitting in the car with that person saying ‘Are you ok? Do you need five minutes?’ They are exposed to incident after incident and are then rushing to next one. It creates a cumulative build up of stress.”

The only way practical immediate way to ease the pressure on police officers is to reduce their demand, Mr Donald explains. He suggested the service giving up certain tasks, such as responding to shoplifting, common assault or criminal damage under £500.

He added: “We need to have an honest conversation with the public about this. We are policing 2018 with 1995 numbers and crime has changed. We need to ask - are we fit for purpose? Something needs to change. Otherwise the future remains bleak.”

Via its BluePrint campaign, Police Oracle accuses the government of failing to meet its obligation of protecting our officers both in the job and, particularly, when they have been forced out of the service because of physical injuries or mental trauma.

We call on the Government to acknowledge and protect our unique service, the best in the world as stated by politicians themselves, by introducing a Police Covenant.

For more on our campaign click here: BluePrint