Having completed 30 years Police Service with the Metropolitan Police in the UK, I have experienced first hand the effects of trauma on the body both mentally and physically.
At the time I was serving, it was in a very peer pressurised environment. To admit to feeling stressed, tired or struggling, would be a sign of weakness. Which in a Firearms role, would lead to the withdrawal of your Firearms Authority. This was something no Firearms Cop ever wanted.
The consequences of this pressure, led to Officers suffering in silence and when questioned by colleagues or supervisors, would not admit they were struggling to cope. It would take a major mental health crisis, before anyone realised and then it was in some cases too late.
Why are Cops so sceptical about professional help? Quite simply, we feel it will have a damaging affect on our Police careers and prevent us from doing the roles we are applying for or already deployed.
Despite all the costly research and studies carried out, the problem still remains breaking down the stigma and reassuring Cops, it is OK not to be OK.
So the million dollar question is, how do we break down the stigma?
What will convince Cops to admit to struggling?
The magnatude of both tasks, was abundantly clear when I first introduced Yoga to Firearms Officer. At first it was met with amusement and mockery, from being called a tree hugger to pink and fluffy! However, not deterred, we identified what was causing a number of Officers stress. Injuries sustained from policing, carrying heavy equipment, assaults or just wear and tear. We then promoted the physical benefits from Yoga, maintaining flexibility, stretching old scars and tired joints. This had an immediate impact on their wellbeing, but what we found was they were responding more to the meditation section of the Yoga session and in some cases stating it was the first time for a long time that they had actually relaxed.
Success, we had introduced them to the benefits of Yoga and more importantly meditation. The sessions are now oversubscribed, additional sessions are being constantly requested to meet the demand.
The isue I had with this initiative though, was it was purely reacting to a problem. What I desired, was to provide an early intervention. This was going to prove to be another hard nut to crack!
How do we spot the early signs that someone is struggling?
For us to achieve this goal, we needed to improve our mental health awareness. The vision was to have Blue Light Champions (BLC) on every team/relief/unit. This would be our eyes and ears on the ground.
Officers would be made aware of their BLC’s and be encouraged to talk to them. In addition the BLC’s would be able to identify members of their own teams, that something was not right, out of character behaviour, absentism or isolation. Something a stranger to the team would not immediately recognise, as they were unaware of previous behaviour traits.
The next stage of our mental awareness initiative, was to train as many First Line Supervision as Mental Health First Aiders. This would equip them with the essential tools to not only identify the signs, but also the confidence in dealing with the Officer.
Both BLC’s and Mental Health First Aiders, were aware of what support was available to the Officers, whether that be through the Occupational Health Unit, or Police Charities and other agencies.
So we now had in place a model in which we could identify the early signs. the next stage was building resilience in the Police. How could we prevent Officers from burning out or sustaining stress related injuries?
This next stage entailed a number of different approaches.
First, we looked at one of the most common causes of stress, sleep or lack of! By educating Officers in the benefits of a healthy sleep regime, we could give them a better awareness of how it affected their bodies, both mentally and physically. If we could demonstrate how easy it was to follow a healthy sleep regime and improve their quality of sleep, by making some minor adjustments to their sleep preparation. This would reduce the amount of stress and build their resilience.
Next we looked at dealing with acute stress, following a traumatic incident. It is well known, that if you are aware how your body reacts to certain events, we are more able to acknowledge what is happening is a perfectly normal reaction. This in turn will reduce the amount of anxiety associated with that event. Incorporating a number of coping strategies, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation and meditation. We were able to demonstrate how easy it was to control the mind and reduce anxiety.
The momentum of the Project was fast gaining interest from other Officers and Staff. Which was in itself a therapy! No longer did the Officer feel as though there were no options, support or anyone listening. We were going to need more Yoga teachers!!
Following Yoga sessions, it was a common occurrence