PSNI officers with PTSD say 9 month wait for mental health appointment could be fatal

Serving and retired PSNI officers with PTSD have told UTV about their concerns on how the organisation treats those in need of mental health support.

They have highlighted the nine-month wait for an appointment with mental health professionals in the Occupational Health and Wellbeing (OHW) department.

One officer who often had to view horrific images told UTV had screening been in place before she took on the job, she would not have been put in the role.

She said she was left feeling 'broken'.

Those interviewed said they understood it is a resource implication and not the fault of the OHW team, but that without intervention from charities and family members, they would likely not have survived their darkest days.

They said they have lost colleagues to suicide and sometimes fear what they would do to themselves if it was not for the help of charities and family members.

The interviewees also spoke out against a lack of psychological screening for officers fulfilling some roles which regularly include very traumatising scenes.

They say screening to check if employees will be suited to roles in area like the armed response unit and public protection unit.

This comes against a backdrop of increasing pressure on the PSNI - recruitment issues, funding that falls short of what's required, and most recently, a furore involving those at the top of the organisation.

Back in June, UTV reported that one in 10 officers have been off sick for psychological reasons between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023.

Head of People, Claire Duffield, was interviewed at that time, and said that the PSNI is committed to ensuring that every member of staff or police officer who is referred to OHW has an initial assessment within an average of 10 days.

"That will then help direct us to what is the most appropriate treatment or service that they might require," she said at the time.

"That could be for mental health conditions, cognitive behavioural therapy, or more intensive trauma treatment.

"But we also have referrals for physiotherapy services, for fit, for work assessments because of the nature of the work of our officers. Those are all different services that we provide on."

The problem here is that the subsequent help offered can take many months to come by, and the officer who came to speak to me anonymously about this wait said that they fear lives are lost during the wait.

Five people were interviewed for this piece - here are their stories. Another two will feature in a second special report on Tuesday.

Lisa and Robert, not their real names, came to speak out on the issue together.

Lisa worked in an area of public protection that meant she was regularly exposed to details of child abuse and now she has PTSD.

She believes that if some screening had been carried out on her before she started working in that post, she would never have been given the job at all.

Robert has served for over 20 years and most recently worked in family liaison.

He also has PTSD, and says years of shootings, stabbings, dead children, and car crashes has left him "saturated" with it all, and unable to cope anymore.

They described what it's like having PTSD.

Both Lisa and Robert are waiting to hear from the NI Policing Board if they will be able to access ill-health retirement. They're among around 100 people in the same situation.

Lisa also wants to see screening in place as a preventative measure.

This has been recommended by the College of Policing, and information we obtained via Freedom of Information states that a pilot screening process for 10-15 officers will be taking place this autumn.

"I have personally been told during my assessment that I was not suitable for the role that I was in for six years. And had I been screened, I could still be working. That's how I feel," said Lisa.

"And I could still be living a normal life. You know, I have missed out so much these last couple of years, unable to attend to the weapons of family and friends and stuff and unable to do activities that I used to do.

"But it's even the other side of it, the nightmares, the intrusive thoughts, you know, the anxiety.

"It's just horrific, and I would not wish anybody else to go through what I've been through these last few years," she said, adding that she hopes this interview "raises awareness for screening to be brought in."

Mary is a sergeant and a psychologist. She is a serving officer on sick leave who developed an interest in psychology and studied a degree in it while working for the PSNI.

"I wrote a report which was of the basis of academic study and also often lived experience and my travels around other countries, other, other services which are using psychological screening," she said.

"The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour that it is a methodology and a tool that helps to identify officers at increased risk of psychological illness or injury up to and including suicidal ideation, and that it can be used to highlight who needs help, who's the priority.

"And if people need to be removed from operational duties or organisation service for a short while to recover and recuperate because of, you know, the exposures they've had. That's only right and proper.

"But if we don't ask, we don't know. So my recommendation was we need to ask, are you okay? I don't feel we do that often enough."

Mary says improving the wait times for psychological assistance and implementing screening are a matter of "simple economics".

"So we can pay upfront for proactive and early intervention, mental health interventions. And when we do that, you know, it's like an ounce of prevention," she said.

"...Or we can wait for a crisis to occur and we can wait for our officers to become burnt out compassion fatigued, psychologically unwell or injured or permanently disabled. And then the debt is ten times more, not only to the individual, not only to the organisation, but to the communities that we serve, to the general public at fund policing and to the country as a whole.

"So to me, it's one of simple economy.

You pay up front and you and you invest in these strategies and methodologies that have been proven time and time again to work. Or we wait and we just watch it crumble for us."

Sam is an inspector, who was joined by civilian staff member Gary. They have also been given false names and voice-actors for the purposes of the story.

"My experience started a few years ago now where I had put the flag up officially if you want to say that I was suffering with mental health," said Gary, who has been off on sick leave for around nine months now.

"Don't get me wrong, I was signposted at that time, however, I found the level of compassion and understanding demonstrated at that time fell far below what I was expecting.

"I continued on, to get services through the NHS, went through cognitive behavioural therapy, I was told I need the trauma counselling. These issues were highlighted to my employer.

"Thus far, I'm currently, in a situation where I've been told I must wait, at least nine months for mental health services," he said.

Sam joined the then RUC in the 90s. He has been on sick leave for about two months.

"I am having to process everything that I've been through for the 29 years and some of it is horrific that I can't mention on camera and me in relation to public order situations where I've seen officers horrifically injured through traffic collisions and really terrible suicides and just have left absolute graphic, horrendous thoughts in my head, and I haven't slept properly for the last six years," he said.

Sam was not the only interviewee to tell me aboutr a poster in PSNI stations that says "it's ok not to be ok".

"You can't move in a police station without seeing this poster, he said.

"And now I'm in a situation where I'm being told, 'you more than likely suffer from PTSD here.

"In fact, it's like, do you suffer from complex PTSD because of the number of traumatic incidents that you've been at?

"We can't help you. We can't help you for eight to nine months. Your GP probably says it or nine months... so you're left in a situation where really you have to find your own therapist, you have to wait there on anyone, you're not in a good place yourself.

"You just feel that there's nobody there to help you," Sam said.

"If I hadn't, my wife, there are the people that kind of steer me the right direction. I really don't know what to what I would have done, and I've actually got help and I helped actually through a charity."

The PSNI was contacted for comment.

The media team told UTV that Claire Duffield was not available for an interview but issued a statement.

I put it to the PSNI that officers say it takes almost a year to access mental health help.

A statement said: “All new referrals to Mental Health Services with the Police Service's Occupational Health and Wellbeing  (OHW) are provided with a structured initial assessment within 10 working days. Waiting times for counselling and clinical psychology sessions fluctuate and are dependent on the demand on the service and resource available at time of referral.“OHW offers in-house counselling for certain cases and the current waiting list is 7.5 months.“Current waiting times for more specialised inputs within OHW such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are four months and the waiting time for psychology is eight months.“An independent, fully security-vetted, self-referral counselling service is also provided by Inspire Workplace services and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It is five working days for initial contact. Counselling is then offered on a face-to-face basis or by telephone/video. The longest wait for a counselling appointment is 19 days and Inspire are not reporting any concerns at present around capacity to deal with Police Service referrals.”

I asked the PSNI for its current stance on psychological screening for certain roles. Here is the reply.

“There is currently no medical assessment prior to someone going into potentially higher-risk roles such as within the Public Protection Branch. The individual applies indicating that they want the role and therefore consider themselves medically fit to fulfil it at the time of application,” a spokesperson said. 

“For those in identified high-risk specialist posts, we are exploring our capacity to monitor the psychological health of those working in these posts, and provide early interventions. We are embarking on a small pilot of psychological surveillance for roles identified as high risk for colleagues in terms of being exposed to difficult situations or traumatic evidence on a more frequent basis.“There is also a framework designed to support, protect and build the personal and professional resilience of police officers and staff.”

I also gave the PSNI the opportunity to comment on the challenging state of affairs regarding resourcing.Policing is a rewarding, yet demanding career, with police officers and staff dealing with a range of traumatic incidents, materials or insights. The rise in employee absence for mental health reasons is an issue affecting many employers and sectors, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is no exception to this.“The context in which we find ourselves in terms of significant budgetary pressures, falling officer numbers and an increase in serious sexual and violent offending can have an effect on organisational resilience and OHW services.”

Reported issues surrounding the ill-health retirement process for officers with PTSD will be covered in the next instalment of this special tomorrow (Tuesday).

Davy and Eddie, two former officers with PTSD who have accessed ill-health retirement, will tell their stories in this piece.

Helpline contacts:

  • Samaritans: 116 123 free from any phone

  • Aware NI: 028 9035 7820

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