It is well established that gardaí need to exercise exceptional mental resilience in their daily work writes Conor Nolan.
Have no doubt about it, policing is a job for the mentally tough. It is widely acknowledged that members of An Garda Síochána are expected to deal with an increasing number of potentially traumatic incidents than at any time in recent history. Ireland has become increasingly violent with little or no value placed on life by some sections of this society. The sheer number of recent gangland murders in the capital is evidence of this; if any were needed. Members of An Garda Síochána will generally be the first responders to these incidents; going about their business in a professional manner, being considerate and compassionate or firm as the situation requires. All of this can take its toll, even on the mentally tough.
Increased gangland activity along with a stubbornly high rate of suicide has had the effect of greatly increasing the possibility of a member encountering a potentially traumatic incident. This increase is in addition to other potentially traumatic incidents for members such as of fatal or near fatal road traffic collisions, incidents of rape or sexual assault. The list of potentially traumatic experiences is limitless, as none of us knows all of the past experiences of a fellow member (inside or outside the job) or what might trigger an unpleasant memory or response from them during or after a given situation. In my experience, and to their great credit, colleagues have always used these past experiences to the benefit of victims and their colleagues, using lessons learned in their own life to empathise, understand and deal with the situation a little better.
Thankfully, members themselves and management at An Garda Síochána have come to recognise that members, tough as they are, can sometimes require a little help. Formalising of the peer-support role was a welcome advance, although I personally feel most members get peer-support from whoever they are close to on their own units rather than the person necessarily nominated and trained; often a quiet word with someone who’s been there before can be enough to get over these incidents.
The garda employee assistance officers or welfare officers also play a fantastic role in offering support to members who may be struggling in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, but outside of obvious headline crimes, these officers do rely on the assistance of members and management to let them know if someone may need their help. I can still recall nearly a decade ago receiving a call from an employee assistance officer who was determined that we meet face to face for a chat. I assured him over and over that it was unnecessary but he was determined and broke me in the end. We had a coffee and a brief chat and I have to admit I was impressed by how at ease he made me feel. At the end of the meeting I assured him that I was fine and that I would, of course, get back in touch if I needed anything. I admired his persistence as I think in some cases a phone call would not be enough to gauge how a member is feeling whereas a lot more can be achieved from a face to face meeting.
The recent launch by Commissioner O’Sullivan of a 24/7 confidential Counselling Service for staff of An Garda Síochána should rightly be heralded as a huge step forward in this area. The free, over the phone service will offer immediate access to accredited counsellors to members who may be struggling in their personal or professional lives. This service can also provide some face to face counselling if it is required. I would urge anyone who may be struggling but worried about issues of confidentiality to use this service.
In May 2007, while still a probationer, an incident occurred which has greatly affected myself and my family. My younger brother Sean was stabbed to death while celebrating his graduation from secondary school. To describe this crime as an ‘incident’, as I have just done, seems not to pay it the seriousness it requires. To describe receiving the news as earth-shattering would be more appropriate. But it is still an ‘incident’ from a policing perspective and as professional police officers my colleagues investigated it appropriately. The members who investigated this crime will not know the pain of my family, the pain of an untimely funeral, birthdays missed, of anniversaries observed and of the great void left by that missing guest at my up-coming wedding. Nobody could understand our pain. But then I thought again. My grandfather says we all have a cross to bear through life; the heartbreak we suffer, the people we lose, the dreams we leave unrealised. Though some must carry more weight than others and some seem more suited to carry it; we all know suffering.
Many years later I was giving evidence at the Coroner’s Court, in a case with entirely different facts to that of my brother’s case. I hadn’t been reminded or felt particularly affected by the case up to this point. It was undoubtedly sad but it hadn’t affected me emotionally. However, when I met the deceased man’s mother her pain reminded me of the pain of my own family and stirred long dormant feelings of loss and sadness. I was able to get through the hearing and perform my duties and was proud of how compassionately I had treated the deceased’s family but the incident had a profound effect on me. I became far more aware of my own wellbeing from that point on and was determined not to take it for granted.
As I have asserted, I have no doubt that to be an effective police officer a person must be mentally tough. But this toughness does not include denying when we are in pain or refusing help. The toughness I am talking about is carrying on, being resilliant, doing the best job we can do in trying circumstances and taking care of ourselves so that we can be the best, most well developed police officers and individuals we can be.
Members of An Garda Síochána must investigate crime professionally but bear in mind this can be a life changing experience for those involved in the case, and members, while considering their own wellbeing should draw on their own life experiences to offer a compassionate as well as professional service in particular to vulnerable victims.
We all suffer in life and every member of An Garda Síochána will witness more than their fair share of pain and suffering, of death and loss but the challenge has to be to remain compassionate and to use our own experiences to give strength to our colleagues and to ourselves. The organisation is blessed that it can draw on so much collective experience both professional and personal and our challenge must be to use this experience in the best possible way while also protecting ourselves and our colleagues from undue harm by making the appropriate supports available to them.
Garda Conor Nolan is based in Pearse Street Garda Station, Dublin 2
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