This blog was written in March 2014 by a detective who describes her experience of depression and posted on the Avon & Somerset police website. The author has subsequently kindly given permission for it to be reposted here in the interests of further highlighting the problem of depression and related mental ill health as it affect members of the police family and hopefully offering some small amount of support and/or guidance for those in need a a little help or assistance.
She talks about her early symptoms, how she disregarded them, how problems built up and how she finally got help. She describes her very positive experience of recovery and gives very practical advice to colleagues who may be experiencing similar symptoms.
I would just like to add that if, as a member of the emergency services, you feel the need for help, or just to talk to someone, the MIND charity operates a specific help/assistance programme for ‘blue light’ workers > http://mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/bluelight/ or call 0300 303 5999
I am a detective constable with 24 years service. I recently had a breakdown and subsequently was diagnosed with depression.
This was caused by too much stress over a long period of time.
I am writing this because I feel one of the last taboos is talking about being in the police and recovering from this type of illness.
I want to help others understand more about stress and depression, how they can spot it in others and how they can reduce the risk of it happening to them.
More importantly I want people to know it is not the end of the world, that afterwards you can have an even happier and contented life than before you fell ill.
I believe more police officers and staff are suffering from stress than ever before. Stress related illness is on the rise and can have a devastating effect on the individual, colleagues, friends and families. And there’s the cost to the organisation with people going long term sick, and some not returning to the job. I believe stress statistics are never going to be accurate due to the amount of people who go sick with stress but then make up another reason for the sickness. They do this because of the stigma that’s still attached to stress and depression.
Freak! Unstable! Lazy! Weak person! Get a grip! You’re making it up!
Let me get one thing perfectly clear. Depression means you are the complete opposite of these things.
“Depression is certainly not a sign of weakness but absolutely is a sign of being too strong for far too long.”
I can only talk about me and my experience. Everyone’s story is different, however I do feel there are common personality traits that can make a person more vulnerable to depression.
Reliability; (moral) strength; diligence; strong conscience; strong sense of responsibility; tendency to focus on needs of others before one’s own; sensitivity; vulnerability to criticism; self-esteem dependent on the evaluation of others. Most of those are police officers to a T!
So what happened to me?
After I had my son I started suffering from anxiety. Sometimes I could control it and push it out of my mind, other times when I was stressed it was more intrusive. I would be driving, in particular on motorways, and have a terrible fear that I was going to crash. I would keep having irrational thoughts, always worrying that the worst would happen in every situation.
I know now that this is called catastrophizing.
I have also had periods of panic attacks; at one point it got so bad I ended up in A&E convinced I was having a heart attack. I would check things a lot – I would walk back in my house many times checking gas rings were off.
I had awful sleep patterns; I would wake with a jump and see sudden vivid images come into my head like a lorry crashing in front of me. I would also over react to sudden noises like a balloon popping or fireworks going off, a bit similar to that Catherine Tate character who screams when the microwave goes ping.
It actually made me feel like I was being attacked. My reactions to a sudden noise were completely over the top.
It was like my fight/flight response had gone wrong and I was always on alert.
It wasn’t constantly awful but it was always there in the background to a certain degree. It was only when I was going through stressful times that it all seemed to get out of control.
What tipped it over from stress and anxiety to depression?
2013 was the year where things went very wrong.
Normally I would go through stressful periods like everyone else does and then things get better but this time it wasn’t getting better. I had been in the police for 24 years, many years in Child Protection/Public Protection Unit. I enjoyed my job which is why I’ve done it for so long and I feel perfectly capable of dealing with the type of cases that I deal with.
I felt it was a combination of events – the increasing work pressure, last five years of going through promotion process, feeling I was constantly jumping through hoops but not getting anywhere. This combined with anxiety problems, my own personality characteristics and some traumatic events in my past meant I was heading full speed towards a complete breakdown.
So what actually was my breakdown, what does that word even mean?
My head started spinning; my brain was racing with too many thoughts crammed in. I was coming home and being stressed and irritable with my family. I was smoking and drinking too much wine to try and relax. Normally I would be trying to exercise and do healthy things to combat stress but this time I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t switch my head off; I remember one evening trying to watch television and breaking down in tears sobbing to my husband, that I was so scared as my mind would not stop racing.
I stopped seeing my friends, I stopped any hobbies, I used to dread the phone ringing as it meant I had to focus and concentrate on whoever was phoning. I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling as that would have taken mental and emotional energy and I had not one bit of it left.
So I completely withdrew from friends and family.
“I felt a fraud like I was pretending to be happy but I was not really. The world just seemed grey; there was no colour left anywhere.”
Each day felt like I was wading through treacle and little tasks seemed huge. I over worried about everything. I felt like I had let everyone down, I felt like a failure.
So how was this affecting my work at this time?
Everything I am describing is being done retrospectively. When I was going through this I did not have the clarity of mind to realise I was ill.
For months I kept breaking down at work, I would overreact to the slightest thing and start crying. Not even a few tears but proper sobbing. I had no control over this, it was like I had no filters left on what was an appropriate reaction or not.
I know now that people were worried about me. In the summer my boss told me he thought I was unwell and that I should go to my GP. I was in complete denial and thought ‘what does he know? I’m just a bit stressed’. Under duress I agreed to visit my GP, where I underplayed how ill I was feeling and left.
So I carried on at work, in my head I really thought I was just a bit stressed and it would pass.
The straw that broke the camel’s back moment
I had planned a spa day with my mum and sister and each day I was thinking ‘come on, a few more days and then you can have a day to relax’. I really felt this one spa day was going to solve everything and I would be back to normal
Towards the end of the year I was waking up feeling worse than I did the day before, a fear of dread of going to work and getting through the day. In my head I was thinking, ‘come on, stop being so weak!’
Then my rest day got cancelled and I could no longer have my spa day. I completely lost the plot in the office and became hysterical, proper snot bubbles coming out of my nose and sobbing uncontrollably. I can still picture the look of horror on the faces of my colleagues and supervisors.
The next day I went back into work as I had a barrister’s conference. I popped in to see my detective inspector and tell him I was on my way to the conference. Instead he told me to sit down and told me in no uncertain terms he thought I was really ill and needed help. He told me I was going home and that the decision to go sick was being taken out of my hands.
“I remember thinking that’s it, my career is over, I have stuffed everything up and I am a complete and utter failure.”
The first three weeks being off sick was my lowest point, the office was particularly busy and I felt I had let my colleagues down. I was extremely paranoid thinking that everyone at work must be talking about me; I was overwhelmed with thoughts of being a failure and being weak. I couldn’t concentrate; I was unable to read anything; written words would dance up and down on the paper. I couldn’t complete the slightest task; I would have to keep walking away every few minutes. My memory and concentration were shot to pieces.
After a while, when it was clear I was not getting better by just resting there, was a bit of an intervention from my friends and family. With their support I went to my GP and at last I was honest about how I was feeling.
The GP signed me off sick for another month, diagnosed me with depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I went home, phoned occupational health and arranged counselling. Occupational Health have been so supportive, absolutely fantastic.
Going back to work
By mid-January the meds were starting to have an effect and although not fully recovered, I felt I had got as well as I could at home and I wanted to continue getting better whilst back at work. I needed routine and normality. In careful consultation with my GP, occupational health and bosses at work it was agreed that over the following month I would slowly build my hours back up. The reduced hours were non-negotiable and it was a condition I needed to agree to, to take the first step in getting back to work. That first day returning to work was so scary. I just wanted to get that moment of walking through the office door on the first day back over and done with.
The personality characteristics I have that made me ill in the first place were exactly the same ones that I now wanted to go back to work.
For the first time in ages I felt I had fire and determination back. I wanted to fight for what I felt was right for me. I absolutely refused to come back and be stuck in a broom cupboard because bosses may not know what to do with me.
Luckily for me and this part was crucial to my smooth return to work, I had bosses that listened to me. I explained I felt I was less of a risk than people currently at work who were suffering stress and depression but did not yet realise. So it was agreed I could go back to my normal work but with a clause that we had regular reviews and that I continued to be honest with them in how I was feeling.
The Elephant in the room!
I am not talking about my weight gain either. That was another effect of the depression, weight gain. A year of downing vast quantities of wine whilst eating lard and doing absolutely no exercise meant I was now packing a fair bit of extra timber.
Anyway I digress. I meant the other elephant in the room – what to say to other people! Should I say something? Should I not? What do they think has happened to me? What do they know?
In the end I decided that I was not going to make any big announcement, I would just crack on with my work. Slowly over the weeks it all just came out naturally, chatting to people on a one to one basis.
So that brings us up to date really. I am now back full time, getting stuck in, a bit of overtime and just generally back to normality.
“The whole return to work experience has been made much easier by some very supportive bosses and friends, you know who you are!”
I am still recovering; my concentration is still not fully back. I have days where I’m extremely tired; those days I just need to be aware not to overdo it and after work go home and relax.
What advice would I now offer?
To anyone who recognises themselves in all this, then please try and get help. You really cannot do this on your own. Start by talking to someone you trust. Once you are honest with yourself and able to admit that things are not great then you can start the slow process of unpicking the reasons it got this way.
If you see someone acting consistently out of character and you are concerned about them, then speak up. They may be at a stage where they are so deeply entrenched in their illness they do not have the self-awareness to know they are unwell.
Police officers are naturally suspicious and we need evidence to back things up. Well, with this type of illness you don’t always get direct evidence; there is no visible injury, no cast on a leg for example.
Instead of thinking ‘unless I get evidence that tells me they are ill, I will assume they are pulling a fast one’ consider taking a default position – ‘I genuinely believe they are ill, unless I get concrete evidence to suggest otherwise’. That would be fantastic. Although to be honest no rumours or nasty comments are in any way as awful as the thoughts that person is most likely having about themselves.
Just remember a little bit of basic human kindness and compassion costs nothing and goes such a long way.
If someone goes sick, a simple text that you are thinking of them will mean the world to them. If you want to go the extra mile and offer them support tell them, so they know who they can contact. The isolation from colleagues is one of the worst parts of it all to deal with.
For me on the whole I have been lucky to have had colleagues that have not judged me, not jumped to conclusions and have been supportive.
Listen to what the person is telling you; don’t think you know all the answers. No one knows them better than they know themselves. A move to a broom cupboard or making it someone else’s problem is really not the best solution. The easy one maybe. But not always the best one.
Anyway as I said at the beginning if I can change just one person’s views or help someone suffering the same, then my work here is done.
I realise putting myself out there like this is opening myself up to being judged and opinions being cast. However what other people think of me no longer worries me like it did last year. To be fair what other people think of me, is really none of my business.