Is a mental health dam in policing starting to crack?

Blog post
Related Themes: Blogs, Mental health

Is a mental health dam in policing starting to crack?

This week, Flint House police treatment centre in Oxfordshire (temporarily) closed its doors to officers seeking psychological support, citing spiralling waiting lists in the face of financial and staffing pressures and growing demand for their services.

Given this worrying news, it seems timely to ask what is happening to the welfare and particularly mental health of police officers and staff, and how well the service understands them and is able to respond.

There is growing evidence of the mental health and welfare price paid by police officers and staff resulting from the nature of their roles. There are also signs that the realities of doing more with less’ under austerity, along with a host of other factors from leadership to media criticism, are compounding these pressures.

Last year the Police Dependents’ Trust published the results of a survey of almost 11,000 officers and staff, 16 per cent of whom had taken at least a week off in the previous five years due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while anxiety (42 per cent) and depression (37 per cent) were the most common reasons for an absence of a week or more. More than half of the injuries reported in the study were psychological.

The recent Police Federation survey of officer welfare revealed that 80 per cent of respondents admitted to experiencing stress, low mood, anxiety, or other mental health and wellbeing issues in the previous year, and 85 per cent felt there aren’t enough officers to meet demand.

Meanwhile, data from the MPS reportedly show a 15 per cent rise in working days lost to mental health issues between 2014/15 and 2015/16, with mental health accounting for a growing proportion of all sick leave (up from 15 to 19 per cent over the year).

At the same time, as I have shown elsewhere, the shrinking police workforce has been getting older and, under pension reforms, is likely to work longer.

On the other hand, a very positive trend is the way the stigma of admitting to mental health issues in policing (and wider society) is starting to lift, seen most recently in the candour of serving and former officers around the #timetotalk mental health campaign.

I suspect this trend will only increase in policing, particularly if more senior figures show leadership by admitting to their own experiences of mental ill health. Judging by the early details, the publication of Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent John Sutherland’s forthcoming memoire Blue may well mark a watershed in this regard.

It’s an obvious point that should nevertheless be stated that, all else being equal, the growing willingness of officers and staff to admit to mental health difficulties will result in more demand for therapeutic services as Flint House would doubtless attest.

So given these trends, how well do police forces understand the welfare needs of their workforces, particularly around mental health, including how they are likely to change in the future?

We know that police finances are likely to continue to be squeezed and that the police workload is changing towards higher harm and more complex cases. That would seem to imply both no respite for busy officers and staff, but also more of the most emotionally demanding work.

The 2016 HMIC PEEL Legitimacy inspection national report suggests that good progress is being made, but also flagged up huge variability’ in the provision of occupational health services. The report also raised concerns that many forces were putting the onus on frontline supervisors who weren’t always clear about their responsibilities for welfare, how to spot warning signs, nor what action they should take.

My nagging concern is that there is a mental health dam in policing that is starting to crack for both good (lower levels of stigma) and bad (more pressured work) reasons, and that as the true extent of the psychological toll on officers and staff is revealed the service will struggle to respond.

Let’s hope the Flint House service closure is short-lived, but also that it is heard as an important alarm bell by the police service, PCCs and others in a position indeed with a duty to respond.

This blog was originally published in Police Oracle.