Good mental health is a garda’s wealth

As a GRA Wellbeing Survey gets underway, Dr. Finian Fallon examines potential issues  that can affect the lives of the Frontline

This is the next step in a difficult conversation that we need to have. Since the infamous destruction of the New York Trade Center in 2001, worldwide, there has been a growing appreciation of the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on First Responders. In addition, among First Responders and in their work settings, and among their dedicated representative organisations there has been an increasing awareness surrounding issues of wellbeing.

In Ireland, the wellbeing of members of An Garda Síochána has been receiving increased attention with the tragic suicides among members in recent years. These occurrences are far in excess, if I can be allowed to express it in this way, of the rate of suicides among the general population.

Members are profoundly affected by these events and we all offer our sympathies to families and friends of the deceased. As the son of a murdered member of the Force, I am only too aware of the impact my father’s death had on my immediate and extended family and his friends. As I have written before, something like 70% of the partners of police men and women who die in service suffer from PTSD.

Many members will have come into contact with the terrible aftermath of these awful events over a number of years. In addition, many GRA members will have encountered, or even heard of, terrible events that have badly affected them and their ability to function normally. These can leave members with symptoms of PTSD. You don’t have to have PTSD to suffer from the symptoms. Where someone has symptoms but not the full diagnosis, we call this sub-clinical PTSD. Studies suggest that up to a third or more of First Responders can have significant and damaging symptoms of PTSD without all of them being diagnosable.

The accepted definition of PTSD also refers to other symptoms which may include not being able to relax or being extremely reactive to noises or interruptions. Poor sleep or insomnia is often a feature. Anxiety and depression are also associated with PTSD. Suicidal ideation is more common among those suffering with PTSD. Poor memory is also often a PTSD symptom and memory problems may also occur in work or social settings (including not being able to recall key aspects of violent or dangerous incidents). Irritability can also be a problem and issues of domestic violence are very high among First Responders.

The work you do can be very isolating and challenging. Again, I have written previously about the stress levels that are involved in repeatedly moving from assertive/aggressive states to passive/polite positions in the daily variations of dealing with members of the public. Recent press reports have also affected morale among members and trust among the public. All of this points to an organisation and members who are under pressure.

In a sense, from a wellbeing perspective, all of this points to the possibility that a significant number of members may be what I have described as “walking wounded.” Something thorough needs to be done to bring about further change. Evidence-based steps to improving matters for members need to be taken promptly.

In one of his books, Flourishing, a famous psychologist, Martin Seligman, described five aspects of wellbeing and resilience:

  •  Positive emotion — experiences that promote this are unique to each individual but the experience of positive emotion promotes wellbeing.
  •  Engagement — again, this depends on what it means to the individual but it has to do with being present and doing things we love, such that we are in the flow of the experience.
  •  Relationships — having access to intimacy, friends and other connections.
  • Meaning — serving something beyond our needs.
  •  Achievement — commitment to achieving things, even where this might not give us much pleasure.

The GRA Wellbeing Survey 2018, driven by the Welfare Sub-Committee (pictured above), will be carried out in April with a plan to present the results at the GRA conference in May. I hope that this survey, which is to be carried out independently of the GRA, will have an impact on the institutional policies and resources that are in need of significant changes to enhance supports for officers. It is time to develop this conversation and reduce the suffering of members.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised here and need to speak with someone it may be of use to speak with your GP.  The Samaritans can be contacted by calling 116 123 or text on 087 260 90 90. also provides support on 1800 80 48 48 and via their website. The National Suicide Helpline (Pieta House) is also available on 1800 247 247.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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