Sam Smith admits he was naïve when he left his job in sales to join the Hertfordshire constabulary.
“You’re thrown into a job where, with weeks of starting, you’re spat at, fighting people, rolling over dead bodies – your adrenaline levels are so high,” he says.
The job quickly became his life. A chronic shortage of staff meant Smith did a lot of overtime, spending his time off sleeping and barely seeing his friends. He started having nightmares and seeing dead bodies in his sleep.
“I probably wasn’t the nicest to my girlfriend – I became irrational and unreasonable. When I look back now, I’m surprised she stayed with me.”
In one of his annual reviews, Smith remembers his sergeant writing down that he needed to ‘stop looking so miserable because it’s bringing the rest of the team down'.
“I used to mutter at my desk that I couldn’t do this anymore, and was told off for being unprofessional. I was showing signs of stress and depression.”
Eventually, his partner, along with an older colleague who’d been in the job longer than Smith, pulled him aside and told him he needed to see a doctor, that he wasn’t the same person who joined the force. Smith was angry at first – he didn’t think there was anything wrong with him – but he gave in, just to get them off his case.
“My colleague told me he’d had a nervous breakdown because of the job, and could see it in me, too,” Smith says.
The doctor confirmed to Smith he was on the edge of having a nervous breakdown and signed him off for a month. At this point, he hadn’t been able to take any annual leave for four months. His sick leave passed without a word from the constabulary – no visit, no referrals, not so much as a ‘get well soon’.
“They should’ve been supporting me – but I was ignored,” he said.
He was only in contact with his partner during sick leave, and another colleague whose husband had had depression, who gave him a number to call for counselling. He didn’t call – instead, he decided that the most rational next step was to leave the force and have a fresh start, so he got a transfer to Guernsey island, near the French coast. It lasted two weeks.
“It was a bad decision, but it was made at a bad point in my life. I was desperately trying to mend things, but I was just running away from my mind,” Smith says.
As soon as he started working again, his trauma came rushing back, and he was signed off work again. The new force wasn’t happy, and they told him to resign. He did, and this time he didn’t ask for a transfer to anywhere else.
“I felt angry and let down. I joined the job three years ago to protect the public, and I worked so hard. At no point did anyone try to help me,” he says.
Mick Ball, strategic lead for wellbeing at Hertfordshire Constabulary, said in response to Smith's account: “The wellbeing of officers is of paramount importance. If an officer shows signs of mental health distress on duty, their line manager will offer support.
“Their circumstances will be discussed confidentially and an action plan put in place, which could include sick leave or alterations to their duties. We foster an open culture in relation to the discussion of mental health, and there are internal resources and services covering anxiety, depression and suicide and a prominent section of our intranet dedicated to external resources.
“We have a large team of officers trained to spot signs that a colleague may be experiencing a mental health challenge. They listen to colleagues and identify pathways to help. We've also introduced a dedicated COVID-19 wellbeing resource page on our intranet and a weekly welfare update."
Looking back, Smith now knows he was showing clear signs of PTSD. He finally went for help and started looking into the research around mental health in police forces; and what started out as curiosity quickly became a much bigger preoccupation.
He found out that almost one in five police officers in the UK have PTSD or complex PTSD, and the number of officers taking time off with stress and anxiety has doubled in the past five years.
PTSD is usually associated with a single, or handful, of events where the person can’t make sense of what’s happened, so the brain doesn’t file it away as a past event. The stress response lingers, tricking the brain into thinking the event isn’t over, causing flashbacks, irritability, and sleep and memory problems.
Complex PTSD manifests when this PTSD isn’t addressed and the exposure to trauma is cumulative. The person can start to see themselves as a failure, and can lose the ability to properly regulate their emotions.
Even though he’d been through it himself, Smith was surprised to learn how little was being done about these statistics, and he grew concerned for his former colleagues.
When Sarah-Jane Lennie, research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University's Centre for Decent Work and Productivity, left the police force last year after serving 18 years, her mind was also on the mental wellbeing of her colleagues. She joined the Hampshire Constabulary not long after leaving university and worked her way up to Detective Inspector.
One particularly serious case required her to regularly work fifteen-hour days, which led to exhaustion that took such a physical and mental toll on Lennie she decided to leave the force. Now, she'd determined to understand what causes this burnout in other officers.
She's found that part of the reason is the deeply embedded culture of emotional repression across the police force, where officers fear there will be consequence if they talk about their feelings. In some cases, there have been. One sergeant told Lennie that they know it’s wrong to punish officers for showing emotion, but they still play the game because they know they’d be criticised otherwise.
Smith recalls a colleague telling him that if he had any problems, to go to him rather than occupational health services.
“He told me as soon as you say something, your career’s over – they’ll see you as unreliable,” he says.
This culture is particularly concerning when it comes to firearms officers, Lennie says, who are encouraged to come forward if they feel stressed, but know that if they do, they’ll be taken off their unit and lose the authority to carry firearms.
“At the moment, we don’t tolerate emotions and stress, therefore no one will speak up, so we get ill people carrying firearms,” she says.
Officers have told Lennie they become dissociated outside of work, too, lacking emotions in circumstances they'd expect to feel them, like when a family member dies. And while younger generations may be more comfortable showing their emotions, this culture dictates that those who emulate those above them are more likely to get promoted.
“Young people still want to conform to the culture by not showing their emotions because they want to be accepted,” she says.
“The attitude is that emotion is a weakness, it’s used as an unofficial performance measure. Not at any point do police forces take responsibility of the fact that it’s the organisation causing the problem.
“We all have an individual responsibility to look after ourselves, but it’s difficult to support your own mental health and be resilient in an organisation that actively works against this, and doesn’t provide the opportunity to be mentally well.”
Smith watched officers used humour to help them cope. He remembers one particularly graphic call-out where the officers involved had to suppress their emotions. In order to cope, they made jokes about it back at the station.
“It wasn’t cruel – people were emotionally detached and had to find a way of coping with this stuff. They had to laugh, not because they found it funny, but because if they didn’t they’d fall apart.”
This culture is reinforced by the public’s expectations of police officers as unemotional, stoic - and God forbid, Lennie says, they’re spotted having a quick coffee break between jobs.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, while the NHS and other key workers have been praised and applauded, police have been criticised for carrying out their roles – albeit slightly inconsistently at first, when government advice and new legislation said two different things about what the public was and wasn’t allowed to do during lockdown.
“Police are going through hell now, it’s been worse than ever. Old colleagues are telling me half the staff aren’t going in because they’re isolating at home,” says Smith.
But the problem is much bigger than just under-staffed forces. The pandemic is exacerbating the stress and trauma police officers are already expected to deal with.
“The public don’t like being told to stay indoors - the police are being made out to be the bad people at the moment," says Mark Williams, chief executive of the Police Firearms Officers Association.
“People are using saliva and other bodily fluids to threaten officers, which is causing huge distress – although, officers are used to this,” he says.
But one thing officers aren’t so used to is the amount of dead bodies they’ve seen over the last two months, due to an increase in sudden deaths in the community. Some, Williams says, are being exposed to multiple deaths a day.
“We don’t know what the effects of this will be further down the line – we’ll have to wait and see, and deal with it then,” he says. “Things don’t go away – they rear their ugly head later on.”
The hope is that, eventually, focus will shift to prevention, rather than dealing with things when it's too late.
Police forces offer Trauma Risk Management (TRiM), a peer support service officers can access after a traumatic event, where they can talk to a fellow officer, but Smith says it isn’t enough.
“Very few police officers admit to mental health problems, and very few know they’re suffering – they’re too busy to realise. And these people aren’t neutral – we need experts – but they’re being ignored.”
Lennie has found that police officers see peer support as disingenuous. Her research suggests speaking to someone an officer knows and trusts is much more effective, as they won’t open up to people they don’t know, for fear it gets back to the wrong people.
“These things that are in place aren’t thought out well enough. Police want to be seen to be doing something about the issue but all they need to provide is space and time for officers to do their own processing together,” she says.
Proper support is especially important during the pandemic, says Jess Miller, director of research at Police Care UK, a charity that supports injured officers.
Officers don’t know what’s going on at the moment, she says, and they’ve been anticipating social unrest as a response to the lockdown, which is causing anxiety. This is fertile ground for trauma and PTSD to develop, for flashbacks, and flashforwards, like, for example, worrying that they’ll bring the virus home to loved ones. Police officers are practised in keeping work and home separate, but Miller says the coronavirus transcends this barrier.
“This is a concern for the 20% of officers living with PTSD and complex PTSD who aren’t accessing formal support, for the vast number of officers who are malfunctioning.”
The ever-changing and confusing messaging around the virus has created a climate of uncertainty that experts worry will exacerbate the stress brought on by the pandemic.
“The policing brain isn’t good with the unknown and a lack of structure,” she says. “They’re trained to follow processes and know what resources they have. Their brains will become hypervigilant, they’ll become jumpy in response to threats if there are unknowns, no end date, no clear facts.”
Smith knows too well what this hypervigilance looks like; he says it’s common among police officers.
“We’re constantly looking, analysing the road when we’re driving, looking in much more detail than most people – and it gets to the point where you can’t switch off. I’ve still got it now,” he says.
After learning about the extent of trauma in the police force, Smith couldn’t believe there’s nothing on mangaing mental health in the police force’s mandatory training, which is compulsory for every officer when they join the force.
“We wouldn’t go on a job without a stab-proof vest, so why don’t we protect our mental health?”
Researchers are working out other ways to provide ongoing support for officers. For Miller, this involves peer support between call-outs to help officers process what they’ve just been exposed to. She’s developed techniques for officers to follow, and wants to see the training rolled out nationally – but she’s concerned about individual forces’ lack of time. One force trained almost 800 officers, she says, because the chief could see its importance, but the officers have to apply the techniques in their own time.
Miller spoke to Kit Malthouse, minister for crime, policing and the fire service, last year when she published her findings revealing the prevalence of PTSD within police forces. She’s still waiting for a response. In the meantime, she hopes to make her resources free to forces soon, taking into account the extra pressures of the pandemic.
Smith argues that introducing mandatory, nationwide measures is the only way forward because the alternative is relying on cash-strapped forces to spend their budgets on something many of them sweep under the carpet.
“I asked the College of Policing what they have in place, and they said the training they’re piloting will be available for individual forces that pay for it,” Smith says.
“I said they were wasting their time – chief constables’ budgets are getting tighter, and they can’t be seen by the public to be spending money on officers.”
If the government don’t put funding into supporting police forces to tackle trauma when it occurs, Miller argues that the public will be at risk. One example is how PTSD affects situational awareness, which is our ability to know where we are and navigate – a very important skill for police officers.
“You could get officers who can’t navigate a high-speed chase, or find their way out of a building they’ve never been in befor,e because of trauma – there’s a public safety issue underlining this,” she says. “If we ignore it, it’ll get worse.”
Funding is also needed to allow officers the time to pause between jobs, Lennie says, and to ease the pressure caused by staff shortages, because at the moment they barely have time for a toilet break, never mind annual leave or time to process one call-out before the next. She says her own burnout on the job could’ve been avoided with sufficient funding; at one point she went from having 22 staff to six.
At the moment, however, the government isn’t willing to accept that being a police officer affects the brain, Miller argues.
“It comes down to whether people want to admit that life hurts. We don’t accept that human suffering hurts the brain, and that’s why one in five officers has PTSD,” she says.
“We need to give officers time to process what they’re dealing with because they’re human beings like everyone else, and we need the government and chief officers to back this and invest in more police officers.”
After reading the statistics and speaking with researchers, Smith approached his MP, Bim Afolami, and called for the Home Office to make mental health a mandatory part of police training. While waiting for a response, he found out that a former colleague from the Hertfordshire constabulary had died by suicide.
Smith managed to get a meeting with Malthouse who said he would review the situation and get back to Smith – but then the pandemic hit the UK. Afolami has assured Smith the matter will be picked up again as soon as possible, but either way, Smith says he won’t give up.
Despite what he went through, and despite just getting a new job, his first after leaving the force, it sounds like Smith is still coming to terms with not being a police officer anymore, even though he's still haunted by some of the things he saw on the job.
“Because I’ve been through a tough time and had help, I could go back into the police and be safer than most people,” he says. “I know how to recognise signs in myself, I know when to step away, I know it’s a real thing, and nothing to be ashamed of.”
He points out the irony in the fact that if he applied to rejoin the into the force, his application would be hindered if he was still showing signs of PTSD, despite one in five officers developing it on the job and being expected to continue working.
“Humans aren’t designed to see that much trauma. Imagine what kind of world we’d live in if we all saw that much. You start to think about what a horrible world we live in because of all the stuff you see, you spend more time around sadness and evil than happiness.”
Smith’s new job is related to some of the work he was doing in the police, but it’s not the police. However, he’s anticipating it being much kinder to his mental health.
“At my new job there’s yoga and all sorts. It’s not my kind of thing, but it’s nice to know it’s there.”