Who protects the protectors?

Gardaí have to consider the mental health of those they encounter every day – but what of their own mental well-being asks John O’Keeffe

On a day-to-day basis, members of An Garda Síochána are tasked with the most onerous of jobs. We require them to be social workers, counsellors, psychologists and also police officers. They are routinely abused by a sub-culture who are their regular customers and by another sub-culture who seem to believe that they are merely man-servants of the State; to respond to their every beck and call. Unfortunately, by definition, they rarely meet the group of normal civilised human beings who really do appreciate the work they do.

Gardaí are routinely expected to deal professionally with the mental health issues of those they come into contact with. However, little if any time is spent considering their own mental health needs. Quite simply, in a world where everyone is allowed to have a mental health challenge except gardaí, who protects the protectors?

The mental health of all gardaí is after all of the utmost concern. As the work of An Garda Síochána impinges on the safety, well-being, liberty and even life of others, it is essential that the right preventative measures be put in place for the protection of all.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a large degree of stress exists amongst the front line of the Force. This is unsurprising. In 2014, 46% of occupational injuries suffered by gardaí were as the result of assault; a further 17% were as a result of road traffic collisions during the course of their work. Shockingly, the overall injury rate for gardaí was almost 40%, while the injury rate for other professions nationally was a mere 3.4%. These risks are not only inherent to the job of policing but an unacceptable occupational hazard. Such risk carries associated stress.

Indeed, broader research also suggests that police officers are four times more likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Common psychological problems experienced by police officers may not be caused by one single traumatic incident, but the cumulative weight of dealing with many incidents over the course of a career. The number of traumatic events that emergency services personnel may experience in a week could possibly exceed that experienced by a member of the general population in a lifetime.

More worryingly, it is widely acknowledged that there is a massive under reporting of mental health issues amongst police officers globally due to possible stigma and labelling and unwillingness to show perceived weakness to colleagues and management.

It is indisputable that such an alarming rate of assault has a serious impact on the mental well-being of those injured and indeed their colleagues. In the UK, Flint House – a rehabilitation centre which deals exclusively with physical injuries and stress suffered by police officers – has a lengthy waiting list of officers suffering from occupational mental health issues ranging from physical injuries, stress, depression to natural ‘wear and tear.’

According to a 2016 Police Federation survey in the UK, 80% of police respondents reported experiencing feelings of stress, low mood, anxiety or other mental health and well-being difficulties. Similarly, anecdotal evidence is now coming from the front line of the service in Ireland.

Mentally troubled police officers as a result of occupational hazards, are not only confined to these islands. Figures released last year in Australia, estimated that one emergency service worker – including police officers – took their own life every six weeks. It was suggested that this figure, based on coronial cases, could actually be higher.

An organisation there is now providing mental health first aid for police officers and says the demand for its services is on the rise. Blue Hope said suicide is a massive problem amongst police and that, “it’s endemic to police everywhere,” noting that, “there is a bit of a reluctance for members to use those services.”

In response, Beyond Blue – another organisation that raises awareness of mental health issues and police in Australia – is preparing to undertake a national mental health study on first responders to investigate the prevalence of mental health conditions, suicide and stigma in Australia. The findings of the study will be released at the end of 2017 and will doubtless provide yet further evidence that police officers in comparable legal jurisdictions to Ireland, are at a very high risk of mental health issues – ranging from depression to suicidal ideation.

While other police forces are facing the reality of mental health problems with officers, the frontline in Ireland remains poorly serviced. While a 24/7 telephone counselling service was instigated in June 2016 for members of An Garda Síochána and has achieved some early success, this operates as merely a band-aid solution to a career long problem.

A number of matters need to be addressed before it is too late. There needs to be an immediate occupational stress survey, commissioned by senior management, across the Force. Psychological and/or social risk assessments are in any event required under health and safety legislation, and yet management are failing frontline gardaí at every preventative turn when it comes to their mental health.

The difficulty remains that during discussion of on-going garda reform, little mention is made of garda victims who are simply not afforded the same status as civilians who may be injured mentally or physically while at work. Very often gardaí may be the first responders to a road traffic accident. What they witness may never leave them. They suffer ridicule, and physical and mental abuse during their working lives and yet very little thought is given to their mental health or welfare. We believe them to be super-human and while their efforts may be, they are not. We consider the mental health of criminals and offenders and keep up with best practice in our prisons but ignore the health of the very men and women who ensured the offenders were sent there in the first place.

Occupational mental health plans are not a difficult proposition. Nor are they ones that will require vast sums of money to begin to correct. Garda management remains responsible for the mental well-being of their members in the same way as any other employer. There is no difference and they cannot shirk their responsibilities when it comes to the lives of those who give so much, for so little. It is way past time management began to take this responsibility seriously before it comes too late for some members. n

John O’Keeffe is a Criminologist and Forensic Psychologist

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

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