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'Silent mental health police culture is killing officers'

Ex-sergeant's poignant talk about his battle with PTSD, depression and his call for better treatment after being let down by his force
Published - 27/09/2018 By - Sophie Garrod - Police Oracle

How are officers expected to deal with members of the public suffering from mental health problems if they are unwell themselves, a medically retired sergeant asked.

Ed Simpson of North Yorkshire Police began his policing career in 1993 in Bradford, which eventually took its toll on him, leaving him broken.

The 42-year-old husband and father-of-two told this week's Mental Health and Policing Conference: “When you join the police, somewhere in training school when you put your uniform on, there’s an invisible shield that gets placed over the top of you, and that shield protects you. It protects you from all the absolute c*ap you’ve got to deal with day in, day out, day in, day out, day in, day out – I could go on and on, we all know what I’m talking about.”

In 2001, Mr Simpson had to attend a murder scene involving a 14-year-old girl who was raped and bludgeoned to death in an alleyway. He  stood over her body for eight hours with a sergeant passing a Mars Bar over the fence to him to keep his energy levels up.

“I went home and never thought about it again, because my shield had protected me. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel sorry for what happened, but I was a police officer, I’m not meant to feel anything….

“But one day, that shield - it had been battered - cracked and it wasn’t in the greatest shape anymore.”

A family of a boy who was involved in a fatal collision was taken to a mortuary by Mr Simpson, who was a family liaison officer at the time.

The teenager had just passed his driving test, clipped a curb, the car span out of control and hit a tree. He died instantly.

“I had done this lots of times, it was just another deployment to show a family someone who had died – it’s not easy, but I’m a police officer, and a police officer deals with this all the time and it’s not going to affect me.

“But I walked into that room where his body was, and it was the mother. The mother screamed and that scream will probably haunt me for the rest of my life, because that scream hit me so hard, my shield disintegrated.

“For the first time ever in police uniform, I cried.

“The mother was trying to get him off the bed, trying to open his eyes and shouting at him ‘why are you so cold’.

“I was stood there thinking ‘why am I crying, why am I crying?’ – It was the most horrendous and horrific thing I had ever experienced. It wasn’t gory, it wasn’t a bomb going off in my face, it was just a mother’s grief.”

Struggling to comprehend why the incident had impacted him so much, Mr Simpson began to feel guilty of his reaction as he thought he was not strong enough for the family.

Two years after the incident, which he eventually pushed to the back of his mind, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and worked in Selby, North Yorkshire. However, he still did not feel on top of the pressures of juggling being a new dad and work.

Mr Simpson opted for a custody sergeant role to be closer to his home as his wife was expecting another child, but soon realised it was the worst place he could have chosen to work. With 24 cells and a team where the chief thought one sergeant was sufficient.

“Me being me, I just wanted to try and help everybody and that started to chip away at me.

“I started to hate my job and I didn’t want to be there. I remember sitting down getting ready for my 12-hour shift getting barraged with people in an out, constant questions and buzzers going off, looking at the clock and thinking ‘I can’t do a 12-hour shift – but I can do an hour shift 12 times'.

“At no point did I think that’s not normal, you should get some help. No, I was just struggling, I wasn’t as good as I used to be – I wasn’t the strong cop I used to be therefore I needed to break up my shifts into hour-long blocks.

“Then I would get into the car and on the way home stop at the petrol station to get four cans of lager and drink them all 'till I’m drunk before going to bed having not said anything to my wife or my daughter because I needed to concentrate on work.

“At work I was responsible for everybody and everything. My only role at work in my head was ‘don’t make any mistakes and don’t let anyone die,’ that was it.”

Mr Simpson started to develop OCD in which he would feel compelled at the end of each shift to quadruple check every single log on the system to make sure it was correct as he was convinced he had made a mistake and as a result, a person would die.

Plucking up the courage, he went to see his GP, where the scream of the mother again hit home and he saw the entire scene flash before him.

“I completely broke down, I had not cried since that incident – so four years later and everything I had just pushed down exploded.”

Mr Simpson left the room diagnosed with PTSD and depression, but his poor mental state meant he could not comprehend this.

He went on: “I didn’t see it coming and I didn’t believe it, I just thought the doctor had misdiagnosed me, and she was misdiagnosing weakness and a rubbish cop and a rubbish dad and a rubbish father and labelling it as depression and PTSD.”

Returning to work and in denial, Mr Simpson contemplated crashing his car on the way to his shift to end it all, but thankfully, made it in that morning.

But he could not remember his password or even how to get the computer monitor to switch on.

The nurse noticed his mind had gone blank and he was signed off sick, but found himself feeling lonelier and more worthless than ever with no-one in the force checking in on him - which he described as "appalling".

“It was hard because I was on my own. One sensation I remember feeling all the time was loneliness.

“The problem is no-one spoke about it, so the only people who knew I was off sick was four detention officers and my line manager. I wasn’t shot, stabbed or beaten up so it wasn’t a big news story - so I spent six months at home just contacting my line manager once a month.

“I decided I was worthless because no one had rung me or come to see me.

“The force was appalling and know it because I’ve told them.”

He was eventually refereed to mental health services by his GP six months later, but it took 19 months before he even got to see anyone, which he describes as “far too late”. By this stage his mind had taken over.

However, an eye-opening moment came when he returned to work, opened up to colleagues and realised he was not the only one.

“When I joined the police I was given body armour, asp, cuffs and all these kinds of things and training on how to defend myself and stop myself from being physically attacked," he said.

"But at no point did anyone say to me ‘by the way, this job will bend you out of shape, and you may end up not being a very well person because of it’, no one said that to me. Yet thousands of pounds are spend on physical protection.

"This is where the police culture has to change. We see mental health as a weakness.

“I wasn’t weak, I was strong. I was far too bloody strong for far too bloody long. But the snaggle is we don’t talk about it, and the silence is killing people.

“Last year 25 officers in England and Wales committed suicide and the year I thought about taking my own life there were 29 - to think I may have been 30…

“That’s not just 29 cops, that’s 29 husbands, fathers, people that we’ve lost in the service. Yet still I am there talking about it and I have never heard anyone else mention it before. It’s a scandal.

“Forces, chief constables and senior officers need to realise that all the plans in the world, all the strategies and polices around how are we going to deal with people, burglaries, murders and people with mental health problems, all these are not going to work if the people you are asking to implement those are unwell themselves.

“We need to look after the people who are looking after others – I don’t think that’s rocket science.

“If we can’t see mental health problems in our own staff, then how are they going to identify them in the public?

“We need to take the blinkers off and look at each other and for God’s sake look after each other, because 25 police officers took their lives last year, I’m not alright with that, it frustrates me.

“It’s a job I miss every day, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m just so destroyed.

“I’m not a cop anymore, but you are still my colleagues and I’ll always care about you, I will keep banging the drum to make sure you are looked after so you can go out there and do the same for the public.”

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