Drop the Rope - Mental Health and the Police
Posted on 26th January 2021 at 12:33
Gareth Keyte (Retired Detective Inspector) stares his experience of the job he loved and his descent into Mental Ill Health through Occupational Stress and PTSD
As a young boy, my parents like many couples of their generation worked long hours and had several jobs in order to make ends meet. Despite money being tight, my brother and I always had clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. Mum and Dad would share with us stories about the sacrifices, they and many other people make for their families. My values were imprinted during this period and fueled a desire to build an independent future for myself outside of the small Welsh town where we lived.
At 19 I embarked upon life as a young soldier in the Royal Marines. I would go on to spend the next few years experiencing the world through the eyes of a young soldier wanting to help others. As I broadened my life skills and knowledge of the world, my values shifted, I strengthened my physical and mental resilience, loyalty, compassion, and comradery.
At 24 years old, it was time for a change of career path. I joined West Mercia Police, and a few years later I was married with two young children. I often worked long hours, missing bedtimes, school plays, and other pivotal moments. I worked bank holidays, rest days and many other days where the rest of the country were spending time with their loved ones in a quest to earn extra money to create a better life for my young family.
I shared stories with the children of all of the exciting jobs I would get involved in. I took pride in telling the kids how I, just like every other policeman or woman was helping to make a difference to people’s lives. I hoped that they would grow to understand why I was working so hard, just as I did with my own parents. It is a familiar story in policing and even though I was working a lot, I felt I was a being a good role model.
An accident involving a close family member put my career into clear perspective – at least for a short time. I had been spending far too much time at work and not enough time with my family. I took some much-needed time off, but it didn’t take more than a few months for me to be back to working long hours again. I really didn’t feel that there was another option for me.
By my late 30’s I had been promoted to Sergeant and then Inspector I had experienced many significant emotional events connected with my various police roles. I began to notice how many robust and resilient colleagues were working themselves into the ground. Some were experiencing financial pressures, some would lose focus on taking care of themselves, excessive drinking and exercising less would often follow. For many, the strain they were under would lead to declining mental health affecting the quality of their relationships at home and at work.
I told myself I was different, that I was the luckiest man in the world in terms of my job and my family and, and that being a cop was as fulfilling and exciting as it is obsessive and all-consuming. As a former Marine, I prided myself on needing little sleep to function and that I could deal with anything life or the job could throw at me. That was, at least, until the last few years of my service.
It was then, when I decided to take a stand against a bullying senior officer whose spiteful behaviour was affecting me and some of my team. Challenging a senior officer was difficult, especially when they used their power and influence to isolate and undermine me. I refused to allow personal ambition to corrupt my integrity, so their behaviour towards me continued over several years despite me submitting grievance and misconduct actions against them. I felt unsupported and under attack, I was ever-vigilant and my ability to process information was deteriorating along with my mental resilience. Relationships inside and outside of the workplace were affected yet I held my ground.
As an officer and manager, I had always prided myself with the compassion and emotional intelligence to spot the signs of occupational stress and anxiety in others. I couldn’t see, that I too was slipping. As the symptoms grew more intense, I felt more and more betrayed and isolated in a lonely tug-of-war against a powerful opponent. However, instead of loosening my grip on the rope, I fought to hold my ground as best as I could until my mind and body couldn’t take any more. I fell hard!
Like many of my colleagues, I had been naïve to the mental challenges that inevitably came with the many significant emotional events that I had experienced during my police career. Like many police officers and staff, I had also seen colleagues die before they reached retirement and others not long after. Some had lost their jobs, marriages, health, friendships and relationships with their closest family members because they allowed the demands of the job to influence their ‘Life balance’.
I honestly believed that the values that motivated me to join the Police aged 24, still held true for me when I was in my early 40s. Looking back I was naïve to take pride in the ability to endure physical and mental suffering. I had cultivated a belief that making critical decisions on little or no sleep was ‘just part of the job’ and gave me professional credibility. I believed that becoming emotionally desensitised is normal and sustainable…. I was misguided! Sadly, after 20 years of policing, and being off work for 12 months with an unseen illness, I retired early.
The road to recovery has so far been long, and I am fortunate to have high caliber friends, an amazing family and two wonderful (police funded) counsellors who worked with Occupational Health staff to support me.These people kept me functioning and, provided therapy to allow me to make sense of what was happening to me. Before I retired, they treated the symptoms and allowed me to take a compassionate approach to the most important person in the healing process; me!
I like many others, am not sure what needs to change to stem the tide of declining mental health in the police. Clearly what’s happening now isn’t working! Treating the symptoms, not the cause, is very much closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. A recent Freedom of Information request shows that the number of working days lost due to psychological illness across 43 police forces during 2019-2020 is over 550,000. That’s an average of over 12,500 working days lost in each force. The cost analysis has been done! It’s huge!
My biggest breakthrough though since leaving, was discovering behavioral coaching with a retired police officer who is now a Master Coach in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). 8 hours of coaching later, I have released the negative emotions (anger, sadness, fear, hurt, guilt etc) that were affecting my thoughts and behaviour. They helped me resolve internal conflicts that unconsciously I was allowing to negatively influence my thoughts and decision making, and I have learnt effective goal setting and how to maintain focus to achieve them.
My recovery journey is not over, but it is made so much easier and I only wish I had discovered this as a pro-active personal management tool while I was in the police. I really do believe that my experience would have been very different and I may have remained in the job I loved.
What I realise now, is that by understanding the nature of the occupational challenges in policing and how they affect relationships and mental health, my experiences are not wasted. I have begun reconnecting with the people and things that are most important to me and I have now retrained as an NLP Behaviour Coach.
I am excited about this year as I have begun working with 3 other coaches (former police officers and business leaders) offering Breakthrough Coaching and rural coaching Retreats for Blue Light professionals experiencing occupational stress. This allows me to stay connected to a group of people I care deeply about and to provide pro-active support in reducing occupational stress and long-term sickness.
For those of you who are tightly gripping a rope of your own…. don’t wait until you fall hard. You have a duty to yourself as well as the public.
When I went to my first counselling session, broken and scared, Tracy (a Dr of Psychology) set me a task.
“Have you heard of the Latin phrase ‘Delapsus Resurgam’? Go home and look it up. I think it will make sense to you”.
….it may just make sense to you too.
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