Taking its toll - Chief Superintendent John Sutherland

The issues and challenges surrounding health and wellbeing in policing

"A stark account of a talented police officer's breakdown...This is a startlingly honest book and the final two chapters are heartbreaking." – The Times

John Sutherland joined the Metropolitan Police Service in 1992, having dreamed of being a police officer since his teens. Rising quickly through the ranks with many highlights – including commanding armed sieges, saving lives and helping to take dangerous people off the streets. But for every case with a happy ending, there were others that ended in desperate sadness.

In early 2013, John suffered a breakdown and consequent battle with depression. He has written a book about his illness and recovery where he offers a personal insight into what it is to be a police officer in Britain today.

Below is the blog he wrote for our newsletter which explores the challenges surrounding officer welfare in an increasingly demanding policing landscape:

It seems to me that we, as a society, owe a remarkable debt to police officers and their civilian colleagues.
Pause for a moment to think about what we ask of the men and women in blue – what we expect of them.
Amongst the humdrum and the routine, we expect them to go where most wouldn't and to do what most couldn't:

  • Into the hurting places
  • Into the dangerous places
  • Into the damaged places
  • Into the violent places
  • Into the broken places
  • Into the frightening places
  • Into the confusing places, where nothing is quite as it seems
  • Into the distressing places
  • Into the thin spaces between life and death

And we expect them to deal with what they find there.
They don't always get it right – sometimes they get it very wrong – but, mostly, they carry out their duties with immense courage, remarkable compassion and endless humanity. I, for one, am grateful to them.
And, alongside a debt of gratitude, we also owe them a far greater level of understanding about the impact that working life can have on them – about the scars that they carry, both seen and unseen.
Some of them are hurting you see.
I have my own story to tell – though I'll save that for the pages of a book called 'Blue'. For now, let me just suggest that there are any number of reasons why we need to be a whole lot more bothered about the health and wellbeing of coppers and their colleagues.

Simple wear and tear
There's no other job that comes close to this one in terms of the simple wear and tear that officers and staff are subject to over the course of a policing life:

  • The inevitable realities of shift working
  • Extended hours worked over prolonged periods of time
  • Endless trauma
  • Extraordinary complexity
  • Relentless demand
  • The fact that very few people phone the police to say that they're having a good day
  • The hostility that characterises so many encounters between the police and those they are called upon to deal with.

And it would be strange if police officers didn't absorb a little of the pain – a little of the strain – somewhere along the way.
Over time, it takes its toll.

Faces and places
Beyond the general wear and tear, every police officer will be able to tell you about the individual faces and places that leave a deeper mark than any other:

  • The blood soaked murder scenes
  • The fatal crashes
  • The cot deaths
  • The armed and violent men
  • The troubled, haunted children
  • The sobbing mothers
  • The carnage that happens beyond the sight of most of us
  • The unavoidable horror of it all

As a society, I don't think we've even begun to understand the compound impact on police officers and staff of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma.

The demands of today
Whilst remembering all that has gone before, there are also the unavoidable demands of today:

  • Punishing workloads
  • Relentless deadlines
  • Covering for colleagues who are struggling
  • Encounters with bad management
  • The complex consequences of austerity
  • The endless hostile commentary about policing offered by anyone with an armchair and an opinion

And that tension that exists for all of us between work and life.

A life story
Because it can't all be just about the job. Everyone has their own life story too. And, amongst all that is wonderful, there are:

  • The demands of life
  • The challenges of life
  • The sorrows of life
  • The flat out pace of life

And the natural, normal, human thing is to feel, to grieve, to hurt sometimes.

Closing Remarks
That last observation is true of all of us of course. But not all of us are police officers.
Not all of us have been in the places they've been. Not all of us have seen the things that they've seen.
Not all of us have confronted, time and again, the very worst that human beings are capable of. Not all of us have sat in the silence at the end of a shift and played it over and over in our minds.
Not all of us have struggled to make some kind of sense of it all. Where police officers suffer – physically, emotionally, psychologically, in any kind of way – as a consequence of their service, the rest of us have an absolute responsibility to look after them.
A duty even.
Because they are the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets – and, every now and then, they need a helping hand.

John Sutherland (@policecommander) is the author of Blue: A Memoir — Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), £11.89.

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