I’m a Police Officer and I have depression
21st February 2018
I’m a Police Officer and I have depression… yes, I’m going to talk openly about being a Police Officer with depression. I’ll give you a moment to digest that.
I’ve had depression for fifteen years. Not that I thought it was depression. I thought life was hard, different life situations bring different challenges and once I was an ‘adult’ everything would fall into place and I would feel better. The only problem… I never felt better. Realising I couldn’t go on living life feeling numb and exhausted by the effort of simply getting through the day, I searched the internet and came across what is, in my opinion, one of the best videos available about depression. “I had a black dog, his name was depression”, by writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone, produced by the World Health Organisation. By the time I realised I had to get help, I had been a serving Police officer for five years and everyone knows you don’t tell the Police that you have depression… career suicide surely – if you’ll pardon the phrase.
The Blue Wall of Silence
Studies have found that it’s significantly harder for Police officers to seek professional help because of the stigma that exists around mental health. (Falconer et al, 2013: Karaffa & Koch, 2016). Dry your eyes – no one likes the greetin’ Polis, reinforces the message that the police culture is to “just get on with it.” (Falconer et al. 2013). One study struggled to even get enough officers to participate in research about mental health; because officers feared that taking part may indicate that they had a problem. “The blue wall of silence.” (White et al., 2015).
Prior to disclosing my depression I was a fully paid up member of the “blue wall of silence” even going as far as vowing no one would ever know about it. I wholeheartedly bought into all the common stigmas. I would be talked about. People would question what I had to be depressed about. They’d say I wasn’t fit to do the job. I’d never be considered for specialist departments and I could kiss any sort of promotion goodbye. I wasn’t alone in my thinking; confidentiality and a negative impact on career prospects are both concerns for officers seeking support, with a fear you’ll be seen as “weak and unable to cope.” (Falconer et al, 2013).
So what made me break my vow of silence?
I was ill. If I had broken my leg I would have visited my Doctor, work would have been aware and I would have received treatment and support. I had to accept that although my illness was mental it was no different. I was fully functioning at work but the effort of hiding the depression was becoming monumental and it was only a matter of time before cracks would begin to show. I had spent five years building my reputation, which was founded upon commitment, motivation and a strong work ethic. I could risk it by speaking up about my depression or the alternative was slowly falling apart with no one knowing the reason why.
Taking emotion out of it, I could acknowledge that anyone would be hard pressed to say my depression had affected my job performance over the past five years. I’d been on the beat, I’d done liaison roles, I’d been a Detective Constable, I’d completed the Police Diploma and I’d done six months as an acting Sergeant. I had to believe that my reputation could withstand whatever the disclosure might bring.
So what did I do? I talked about it.
After several discussions about confidentiality I was reassured that the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) wouldn’t disclose anything I said unless it met specific criteria, which were fully explained – so I talked to them.
Counsellors would only disclose for the same reason – so I talked to them.
My Inspector advised me who she was required to tell; to my knowledge it never went any further and it was never made an issue with regards to my work – which at that time was the role of acting Sergeant – so I talked to her.
Having depression may have made me weak in the short term but indulge me as I list for you, the steps I took to aid my recovery. In the past two years I’ve been on three different medications, I’ve had two courses of counselling, a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, several appointments with a Community Psychiatric Nurse, a psychologist and a psychiatrist; several telephone counselling sessions with the EAP, several appointments with Occupational Health and multiple and ongoing appointments with my Doctor. At one point I was attending so many appointments my family said it was like I had two jobs. Eventually I was signed off work for six months because getting myself well did become a full time job, I owed it to myself, and the Police to get myself back to full health.
Let’s for a second acknowledge the new skills I now bring to my role
Even now, my recovery is an active process I participate in every day – both in and out of work. I returned to work on phased hours and modified duties. I built up my hours, my work load and my confidence and proved to myself and others that I, as a police officer – because that is what I am – though not yet able to carry out full operational duties, can still add value to the organisation. If anyone wants to argue that makes me weak and unable to cope, I’ve done enough counselling to know it says more about you than me.
Let’s for a second acknowledge the new skills I now bring to my role; strength of character and an increased ability to cope, greater empathy and compassion, counselling skills (certified); self-awareness, active listening and an understanding of helping others to help themselves.
These skills not only benefit the public but also enhance my leadership skills and I fully intend to complete the promotion process I had to postpone.
As I got better, I began to realise that if I didn’t talk about my depression I was contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness. If I felt there was something to be ashamed of I couldn’t expect others to think differently. Do I believe stigmas still exist? Absolutely! Attending internal training on “Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Intervention” was the first time in my recovery I’d felt uncomfortable with the subject matter. The irony was not lost on me; in a training session on how the police can better help people with mental ill health I couldn’t talk about my own.
So how do we support our colleagues with mental ill health?
- The Police have support services for us to use – talk to the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), talk about them, know who they are and what they can offer, encourage its use and if you’re struggling, seek help or even just support and advice – this can be done confidentially.
- Mental illness is an illness like any other, you may need time to recover but it doesn’t automatically mean you are “weak and unable to cope” and actually it can make you stronger and better able to cope. It doesn’t have to be ‘career suicide’.
- We have to be able to talk about mental health without shame or fear of stigma, talk about mental health, good and bad and create an environment where your colleagues feel safe to talk openly about what they are experiencing.
Did I mention Talk?! Help to break down the blue wall of silence.
This article was originally published as part of the ‘Your Wellbeing Matters’ initiative.