Learning to cope

shutterstock_180932597Are gardaí risking their psychological and emotional well-being for our safety ask Paula Richards and Linda Balfe.

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 11.40.36Working in a busy psychotherapy practice for the past 17 years, it has become evident that gardaí presenting for counselling today are struggling to deal with levels of trauma, which affect them on an emotional level, that they never had to deal with in the past. In our violent society, where drugs and gangland crimes are prevalent and because the nature of policing has changed so drastically, the constant threat of physical danger is ever present. Do members of An Garda Síochána receive in their training, adequate skills to deal with the ever increasing incidences that effect their mental well-being and severely impact on their everyday lives?

Having looked at the present critical incident training that is provided to all gardaí under the Health & Safety at Work Act there is no provision for the effect on the garda with regard to their ongoing mental and physical well-being following a traumatic event. There appears to be an understanding between the men and women who serve in our national police service that when they are involved in a critical incident there are two potential scenarios: One being that at the very least the incident will cause minimal disruption to their lives so the less spoken about it the better. The other being that the impact is so great that he/she is seriously traumatised and then a chat with a colleague, maybe a few pints in the pub, should suffice.

Although peer support is vitally important in the gardaí, this particular support seems to be availed of on an ad hoc basis, dependent it seems on whether the garda who is traumatised or maybe just struggling feels, that to share his/her feelings with a colleague is a sign of weakness or inadequacy.

We do of course recognise that a critical incident is a very subjective term, as some gardaí may feel overwhelmed after an incident and others may not. However, what happens when the trauma experienced is either too big to discuss with a colleague or too big to deal with over a few pints in the pub? What happens when that garda is alone in their trauma?

In dealing with this issue, there appears currently to be no policy offering stress identification and management training or debriefing after critical events. Is it not possible that critical incident psychological management training be included in the general training of all our gardaí prior to their dealing with real issues of a traumatic nature? We recognise as counsellors that not dealing with issues can lead to much bigger issues, the main one being PTSD (Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect gardaí who personally experience the incident, are called to the scene or are there to report on the aftermath of any traumatic event. This can have a knock on effect on families and work colleagues.

PTSD develops differently from person to person. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop in the hours or days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear.

Symptoms vary from person to person but more of the commonly recognised symptoms of PTSD are resistance to recall the event, unexplained emotional anxiety, constant replay of the incident and not being motivated to continue everyday tasks in the normal working/personal environment.

Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while, but they don’t have PTSD — with time and good self-care, they usually get better. But if the symptoms get worse or last for months or even years and interfere with your functioning, you may have PTSD.

These symptoms can also present as the following; intrusive thoughts of the events, triggers and sounds that can lead to flashbacks, insomnia and nightmares, and also distress when reminded of the trauma. Other symptoms present as feeling detached from their surroundings and emotionally numb which can lead to relationship breakdown. Psychosomatic symptoms manifest and present as pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating. Left untreated, PTSD can result in impaired decision making, relationship breakdown, increased absenteeism, substance abuse, intense psychological distress; which in our experience are some of the presenting problems which cover up the real underlying issues.

The signs of PTSD for the garda could manifest itself in many ways as listed above and recognising these signs are important. Be aware of how you are feeling and listen to what your family and colleagues are saying. As soon as you recognise that these symptoms are not dissipating it is vital that intervention is sought.

Counselling and psychotherapy are available and is a way forward in dealing with pressures, stress and isolation that is part of coping with PTSD.  Counselling and psychotherapy will give the individual a space to discuss their feelings in a safe, non-judgemental, confidential manner and the opportunity to avail of a focused treatment combining integrative techniques focusing on the mind and body connection, education about feelings, affect management, containment and pacing and desensitization. One of the simplest things that counselling offers is the opportunity for the individual to talk about their feelings. Talking can enable them to experience a feeling of relief like a heavy weight has been lifted off their shoulders.

Presently there is counselling available to gardaí covered by their medical aid at 60% of the cost of their sessions and subject to a maximum of ten visits in a calendar year but there appears to be a strong resistance to avail of therapy due to the misguided perception that attending for counselling is a reflection of weakness or inadequacy on the part of the garda. 

It is the opinion of counsellors and psychotherapists that this is a very necessary intervention and gardaí should be encouraged to seek therapy as part of their ongoing work practices. Our statistics from our counselling services show that for the past number of years the majority of gardaí presenting with symptoms of PTSD are referred by the medical profession due to the physical and emotional symptoms they are experiencing. However, there are some negative factors which serve as a barrier to the referral process which can include non-recognition by the medical profession of psychological and emotional distress symptoms, one of these factors being a lack of GP awareness and sensitivity regarding emotional or psychosocial problems.   

This is why it is vitally important that gardaí be educated and trained in recognising symptoms and for mandatory debriefing to be in place for all of those who work on the front line. Also important is the knowledge that seeking professional help will not affect them going forward for promotions or be seen as a sign of weakness.    

If this service is not put in place, where does that leave our men and women who have taken on the role to serve and protect our communities and who put their lives at risk on a daily basis?   

Treatment for PTSD can be long term and intensive therapy is extremely successful.  However, long term therapy could be avoided if prior training in the coping mechanisms for critical incident issues were included in garda training. 

Paula Richards and Linda Balfe are accredited psychotherapists with IACP and directors of Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Co. Dublin


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