Sarah McKinley: Telling the stories of PSNI officers battling mental-ill health

There’s been a huge response to my story about a mental health crisis within the PSNI.

Well not “my” story, rather, the deeply sad stories of the seven serving and retired officers that I told, who opened up about considering suicide while waiting for mental health help for the guts of a year, and about the "long and retraumatising" journey of getting ill-health retirement.

There was a wave of emails from more officers with mental ill-health detailing how they have felt failed by the internal support network and thanking us for highlighting the issues, but there have of course been some more critical questions.

I’ve been asked a few times, ‘did they not know what they were getting into when they joined?’

Anyone could guess what a police officer will have to see in the course of their duties, but the key issue here is that nobody could know how they will react to it all until it happens, and by this time it can be too late.

Neither would anyone suspect that people who are in many cases armed would have to wait almost a year when they feel they can no longer cope.

The organisation has also changed since many would have started - fewer officers, less resource, a newly reinstated high security threat level.

One might guess that they’d face shootings, stabbings and death, but nobody could have foreseen the data breach which has left staff feeling scared, vulnerable and let down.

I’ve also been asked if I I think it’s possible anyone is ‘swinging the lead’.

I can’t say if there’s anyone pretending to be ill, or off sick without good reason, or vying for early retirement. It’s entirely possible some dishonest people are doing that.

But remember, this story isn't about money, it was about asking for help when officers need it instead of seven months down the line.

Lots of officers have reported self-finding appointments or going through charities for emergency interventions.

This isn’t behaviour of people who are pretending.

I’d also say that this investigation involved speaking to dozens of people in the same boat and even more have approached me since going to air with these stories.

As far as exiting the organisation is concerned, the people who spoke out are on full pay and would stand to lose out when they cut ties for good. They’ve also got medical sign off that they likely aren’t fit to carry out their duties any more.

Psychologist and sergeant ‘Mary’ told us not only is it hard to fake something like this, it’s also not worth the stigma still attached to admitting you’re mentally unfit to carry on serving.Something that struck me over the course of this probe was how the interviewees felt that we listened in a way they’re not used to.

Previously they’ve had responses like the infamous “dry your eyes” comment from Sir George Hamilton, who later apologised.

The PSNI said its Occupational Health and Wellbeing team is doing its best in the face of challenging circumstances.

“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.”

So what now? With dwindling officer numbers and hundreds off sick, it looks like the only way is to protect and retain the ones that are left behind for the benefit of everyone.

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