As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we have published this BLOG by Sergeant Dan Wood who works in Learning and Development at Gloucestershire Constabulary. It’s quite a long read but definitely well worth it, as Dan talks about his own battle with mental health, the causes and how he got help. Dan is due to start giving inputs to new recruits at Gloucestershire about recognising the signs of mental health in themselves and their colleagues and the importance of seeking help when it’s needed.

My story begins

In the interests of brevity and out of respect for my wife and son, I’ve omitted much of the finer detail but this is an overview of events.  At this stage, I had 8 years of policing service in frontline, uniformed departments.

My story begins in 2013, when my wife gave birth to our son.  

In the months preceding we had prepared the house (or thought we had!), stocked on the obvious essentials and spent a small fortune on DIY materials and car seats.  In making physical preparations I had also given thought to my mental readiness, having heard that childbirth wasn’t the easiest of experiences.  My first thought was, “I’m not the one giving birth so let’s not get too worried about how it’ll be for me”, as well as, “I’m a Police Officer, whatever happens certainly won’t be as bad as what I’ve seen and if it is, I’ll deal with it fine”.

Unfortunately, the birth of my son didn’t go to plan.  Having detected a decrease in his heart rate and predicting further complications, my wife was moved into a separate room.  It was here that she and my son endured countless medical procedures that, when finally over, left a scene that I described at the time as ‘better than a murder scene’.  The dust settled.  My wife slept and I held my new-born son as I began to digest what had taken place and prayed he wouldn’t poo until I received the training in how to approach such incidents.

A little while after, I left the room with my son for reasons I don’t remember, returning shortly after.  On returning, my wife wasn’t in the bed where I’d left her and I called her name.  I heard a feint mumble from the adjoining toilet and opened the door, still holding my son who was thankfully sleeping.  I found my wife slumped against the toilet and blood had pooled around her and toward the door.  She was white as a sheet and barely conscious – human beings displaying such pallid skin are rarely alive in my experience.  I knew something serious had happened.

I slowly turned, walked back out toward the door of the private room and opened it looking out at the small gathering of nurses around the desk in the middle of the ward.  I calmly said “can we have some help in here please”.  I didn’t run.  I didn’t shout.  On reflection, I can’t help but wonder why I simply called for help as if I wanted another glass of wine with my meal.  It was only much later I realised why.

Within seconds there were alarms sounding and medical staff tending to my wife.  I remember asking if she was going to be ok as I held my son and stood by watching what felt like a scene from a movie passing by in front of me.  At this point I began to seriously worry but there was nothing I could do as I looked around at the claret and disarray that surrounded me.

Time passed and thanks to the outstanding efforts of our amazing NHS medics she was stabilised.  She had haemorrhaged badly and lost a lot of blood. My wife was eventually transferred to a ward where she began her recovery and received a blood transfusion. I was left holding the baby, a term my colleagues will relate to, but I was, literally!

I left my son and wife in hospital that night and returned home alone.

The months that followed were difficult.  I remember feeling hot, because it was thirty degrees outside, being irritable and naturally, very, very tired.  I remember being angry quickly and having a short temper.  I also felt upset that I wasn’t joyous about the birth of my first child and gleaming like you see in so many family photos posted these days on social media – I wasn’t fresh faced, contented and loving life.

Acting on medical advice, we met with consultants at the hospital to de-brief what had happened and it was during this that I was told I appeared to be suffering from male post-natal depression and PTSD.  All the while and to this date, feeling guilty that such concern and emphasis had been placed on me and not my wife – after all, it was her that actually gave birth, not me!

Since these events, I find myself living with an intolerable health anxiety.  An insect bite to you, may well be skin cancer to me.  My mind no longer rationalises medical risk like it did before.  I simply do not accept that things are ok anymore and I question everything, trying to find fault or something that’s been missed.  I deal with what they call, catastrophic thinking – this is my default where before, it had been the worst case.  I’ve spent a lot of money on private medical care because I’ve not wanted to wait for an NHS appointment that’s been wasted – there was nothing wrong.  We could all have gone on holiday instead.

My 2017 ‘blow up’

Now a Sergeant and posted as a custody officer, I had enjoyed a few years of ‘normality’ as I call it and we’d had our second child, my daughter.  Mercifully, the birth of my daughter went surprisingly well and without complication.

It was approaching the summer of this year and I was on duty in the custody suite dealing with a female detainee at the charge desk.  I remember becoming frustrated with her for reasons I don’t recall and I shouted at her and had the officers remove her to a cell.  This as any officer will attest to is relative normality in any custody suite, but not for me.  I am not known for shouting unless absolutely necessary and I believe I achieve the same ends maintaining a calm, methodical approach.  I reflected on it and thought, “that was a bit odd”.

Over the coming weeks while at work, and at work only, I developed an utterly bizarre physical complaint in the form of a frequent desire to urinate.  I would take myself off to the toilet and return only to need to go back within minutes, at times, as short as seconds.  This went on for days and I eventually discussed it with the custody doctor who advised me it was unlikely to be anything to worry about at my age and to see my GP if it continued.  It did.

You can imagine now how my mind dealt with this – what could be a urine infection, was prostate cancer to me.  My mind began to spiral and I found myself dealing with unbearable anxiety.

Weeks went on and on one sunny spring afternoon, I arrived at the custody suite to begin a late shift.

I went through the first set of secure doors and into the lobby area, approaching the interior door to the custody suite and I swiped my proximity card to open the next door.  I went to open the door and reaching my hand to the handle, my hand froze open.  My right hand wouldn’t grip with handle – physically.  It was most strange.  I said to myself “what the hell are you doing, open the dam door” in typical can do police styleSo I did.

Over the coming week I noticed a strange sense of avoidance as I arrived at work.  I would walk the corridor into the custody suite, approaching the solid metal cell type security door that any officer will be familiar with – the one with the tiny reinforced window you can see through, but couldn’t climb out of if it did break!  I noticed a real sense of not wanting to go through it, to walk away, to leave immediately.  I worked through it thinking not a lot about it until one day I visited my GP.

I was signed off immediately with what he called ‘acute stress’.  He attributed all of the above to stress and I remained away from work for about seven months. These seven months were terrible.  I couldn’t sleep, I was irritable, I felt sad and tense.  I felt alone.

For some reason, I couldn’t be at home either.  Most people will seek solace at home, in their space, without interference – I didn’t.  I don’t know why, some say avoidance or ‘fight-flight’ kicking in.  So my wife and I found ourselves driving, for hours, to random locations, just to keep me ‘out’.  My wife would often drive as I contemplated things quietly.  I would very regularly begin to cry for no reason and she would say “you ok?”.  I was, I didn’t know why I was crying, there was no reason, I didn’t even feel sad – I had no control and just cried…because.

Months in, I reached a stage where I began to weigh up my options.  Those options ranged from medication and counselling, to suicide.  I don’t like writing that.  It wasn’t a plan, or a thought as to means (what we in the police would call, an intent to act), more of an objective ‘what are all the options warts and all’.  I took counselling.

The counselling wasn’t for me and I left that having found the counsellor more interested in the hour time slot than actually listening to me and picking up from where we’d left off the week prior.

During this period of stress, I applied for several jobs attending two interviews and I even had our house valued and very nearly placed on the market.  Looking back, I really wasn’t well and it scares me how close I came to sacrificing my career, our home and our lives as we know it.

Thankfully I got better after several months, I don’t know how, from the unwavering support and the love shown by my wife I suspect – I am eternally in her debt.

COVID-19

Several years passed and in 2020 as we all know, Coronavirus arrived in the UK.  Now in the Learning and Development department, I found myself re-deployed to custody as part of a force re-structure in response to the threat.

I love custody – this always raises an eyebrow or two.  But, for some reason I do – I enjoy the pace, the often high risk decision making, the detail of cases from shoplifting to murder and terrorism.

But for me, this was a perfect storm.

I began to work 12 hour shifts night and day in the custody suite.  We put measures in place to mitigate the risks of Coronavirus (face masks, goggles, gloves, aprons), we sealed an entire wing to be used for ‘COVID suspected detainees’ and tried our best to self-distance, which in such an environment is practically impossible.

The cogs of my mind began to turn.  “I’ve been placed in a confined environment, with asthma, surrounded by lots of people, at the height of a global pandemic that attacks the respiratory system, that’s killing thousands and I’m faced with people who are claiming to have it, or are showing symptoms.  There’s people walking around as if there’s been a CBRN attack……. and I don’t like it!”. CBRN for those who aren’t familiar refers to ‘chemical biological radiological nuclear’.

My mind just did not process this like most other people’s probably do.  I felt selfish – I know no one wanted to be there really in an ideal world, who would?  But the people I work with are professionals and they’ll step up to the task like they always do.  That aside, mine was a real fear.

One evening while at home, prior to the beginning of a night shift, my mind wandered.  I couldn’t stop the thoughts or feelings and it brought me to tears.  I couldn’t face it and I didn’t work that evening.  This did however give rise to me opening up about my feelings and I spoke about the issues I faced.

I worked in the custody suite for several weeks, sometimes as the acting Inspector in the absence of ours who was away from work – his own family affected by the terrible impact of COVID-19.

I was removed several weeks after this and returned to the Learning and Development department.  I felt like I’d let the side down, like I hadn’t stepped up, though I was assured it was for my welfare and on reflection I am grateful.

This is when I got some real help in the form of our staff welfare officer Ruth.

Getting help

I was put in touch with Ruth who began a course of telephone based sessions lasting about an hour at a time where we spoke about the history behind everything right up to the present.  Had we not been in the midst of Coronavirus, this would have been in person and would no doubt be less detached, but I found it worked perfectly for me.

Ruth took the time and no doubt energy to endure the history of the last seven years and helped me to re-frame everything.  She is an excellent listener and really means what she says – she is also formidable and won’t mince her words which isn’t a bad thing!

Ruth helped me to address the underlying causes and triggers and to recognise what was really going on.

The birth of my son was not the trigger.  For years had anyone asked where this all began, I would say that it was in 2013 following his birth – not so according to Ruth, which was a revelation to me.

Having worked in policing since 2005, I am traumatised.  I’ve dealt with death and destruction on a grand scale, observed and smelt things no human should ever have to endure, faced danger, processed emotions and lived experiences that I now consider ‘just work’ – but it isn’t.

I’m left mentally scarred by years of trauma.  When I hear my children shout for me downstairs while I’m in the shower, why does my mind immediately tell me there is someone in the house with a knife and bloodied arms?  Is that normal?  No, it isn’t.  They just wanted an apple probably.

When I smell a certain air freshener when walking down the street with the family, why do I envisage a man with the barrel of a rifle in his mouth and brain matter spattered everywhere?

Why when we drive past a certain spot on a local dual carriageway do I instantaneously relive a young man hanging in a tree?

Being a Police Officer, I exercise a degree of control over most situations I find myself in.  I am used to this, I am used to managing things and making decisions.  The birth of my son, took this away from me – I was totally, utterly at the mercy of nature and modern medicine.  I had no control and could do nothing.  So the birth itself wasn’t where the story began at all, it was just a moment in time that catalysed the trauma already instilled in me.

I didn’t shout for help, or run to the nurses at the desk because I’m highly trained or experienced in stressful and life changing events – I was traumatised and in a state of shock like any normal human being.

I recognise now that it is the lived experience I have of life through policing that has caused me to think the way I do, remember things the way I do and to think of the worst case at every turn.  I am naturally pessimistic – if there’s one thing that I am well trained in, it’s the art of thinking worst case and preparing for it so that whatever happens, we’re ready to respond effectively and deal with what’s thrown our way.

The reason I experienced my episode of stress in 2017 wasn’t because of the birth either.  As time had passed and we’d had our daughter without complication, Ruth helped me to see that actually, in 2017 my mind was calm and comfortable that everything is ok at last.

My mind took the opportunity to say ‘nope, it isn’t ok, things are not, ok’.  My mind took its chance while everything was ok and I was settled, to tell me that things were absolutely not ok.  It responded externally through the inability to go into work, the shouting and the need to urinate and it caused me to fall apart.  So my perceived wellness was actually disguised and my mind took the chance to make itself known.

I now use coping strategies that Ruth has helped me to develop and so far, I’m doing well.

My advice to you

Remember, the uniform is not a firewall.  You are not immune to anything that anyone not wearing a uniform isn’t.  You are a person, a human being and you have emotion.  Do not hang your uniform up at the end of a shift and emotionally hang your feelings up alongside it.  Do not walk out thinking once you’re in your car and the radio is on it’s just another shift sorted.  Do not underestimate the impact of what you deal with on your mind and the consequences on those around you.

Challenge yourself.  After a shift, ask yourself “am I ok?”.  Ask yourself “is that ok with me?”, after you’ve dealt with something potentially traumatic – recognise what isn’t normal and understand that while you may feel just fine, actually, you may not be.

Be honest with your family.  Tell them how work is, tell them what you’re dealing with.  Share your feelings and don’t be ashamed to – you are not invincible because you have a uniform.  Of course you’re professional and you deal expertly with anything that comes your way, but you are not bullet proof.

Ask those around you to tell you if they notice changes in who you are, if they see that you’re not yourself or they’re seeing behaviours in you that concern them.  Take that feedback and if it seems right, seek some help – it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Talk to colleagues and support each other.  There will be times you don’t want to have to share experiences with loved ones and colleagues, friends, fill that gap.  When one talks, it usually causes others to talk too and you’re all in it together.

Finally, look after yourself.  Eat well, exercise, take time to relax and lose yourself in things you enjoy doing whether that’s reading, playing online games, travelling, walking the dog, running or just listening to music.

My thanks

I want thank my wife and two children for putting up with me, for living with me, listening to me, supporting and loving me.  Without them, who knows where I’d be! Thanks also to Ruth our welfare officer, for her kind ear and for helping me to redefine everything so that I can begin to move on.  I wouldn’t blame you for wondering why, but my thanks to the Police too.  Everything aside, I joined knowing the risks, the rewards and knowing the potential impact on life but I’m still doing the best job in the world.  I work with amazing people, I do things I could only ever do in policing and I still get up every day looking forward to what may come….just a bit more mentally prepared now!

If this Blog has raised any issues or you recognise some of Dan’s symptoms in yourself or your colleagues, remember it’s OK to ask for help – contact your Force Wellbeing Team or Occupational Health Department.

There are lots of resources on this website around mental health and taking care of yourself, here are some links we think you will find useful.