Blue Flower

MENTAL HEALTH:

Force introduces 24/7 mental health support for officers and staff

A young businessman looking stressed-out at the office

Lancashire Constabulary are working with Big White Wall, to provide mental health support to their officers and staff. Ian Hesketh a Doctorate researcher at Lancaster University Management School and a Lancashire Constabulary police officer writes in conjunction with James de Bathe, Head of Business Development at Big White Wall.

 

What’s the stereotype of a police officer or someone working for the police service in the UK? Strong, capable, unflappable in a crisis? What about depressed, stressed or anxious? It might not be the first thing that springs to mind, but like everyone else the police can experience mental ill health, and the combination of  unprecedented reform to policing, stress, and ever increasing workloads aren’t necessarily helpful to building good mental health. Recently forces have experienced radical changes across many aspects of the service, all the while overseeing a reported fall in crime. A high pressure job by any standard.

What happens when individuals under these pressures start to fray, or feel they need help? What can be done?

Some of the obvious answers – get some counselling or therapy, talk about it, see your doctor – are fine if you’re the type of person who is able to be open about their mental health, and you are happy to take the time to see your doctor or speak to a professional. But the truth is that many people in careers like the police service, where being calm under pressure is par for the course, can find it hard to admit that they are struggling to cope. As one member of anonymous mental health support service, Big White Wall, commented “I’ve always worked in a stressful environment, but I’ve always been able cope and deal with those situations in life and be able to move on. I’m used to being the strong one, helping others.”

The combination of the anti-social hours associated with shift work and the unique pressures of policing surely make it harder for those in service to either find people who can relate to their issues, or frankly, find people available to talk to when they need it

High-pressure occupations can be hotbeds of undiagnosed mental health issues. Dr Laura Goodwin, who recently ran a study on the mental health of the armed forces, which found higher than average levels of depression and anxiety amongst the forces population, commented to the BBC recently: “We know that other studies which recruit people just because they are in a particular occupation, such as teaching or social work, also find higher reports of anxiety and depression.” So clearly there is a link between certain types of jobs and a general increase in mental health issues.

Stigma in the workforce is not the preserve of certain sectors however. A survey by ‘Time to Change’ suggests that 92% of the British public believes that admitting to having a mental health problem would damage someone’s career, and we know that there are some groups, for example men over 40, who make less use of traditional workplace mental health provision such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

So despite anxiety, stress, and depression being common, people can still feel a stigma about experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions. This can stop them telling anyone, and stop them seeking help. The question is, how do you crack this problem of stigma to ensure that people in high-pressure careers get mental health support as and when they need it, and ensure they are actually willing to use the support that’s on offer?

One way might be to use digital technology to change the way mental health support is delivered. Big White Wall seeks to tackle the problem of stigma in a new way. With years of experience working with the NHS and the armed forces, Big White Wall offers safe, anonymous, online support 24/7. It has trained counsellors online at all times, and is available via mobile, tablet and PC, including an app for iOS and Android. And it’s just started working with Lancashire Constabulary, the first police force to try out this innovative style of support.

Why might this approach work for the police service? Well, firstly it’s 24/7 – and that’s when the police work. Secondly it’s anonymous. Given the potential for stigma, and the sensitivity of police work, this is likely to suit officers. Its peer-to-peer network means that users in the police service can share their issues with like-minded individuals having similar experiences, or with people from completely different walks of life who are also experiencing mental health difficulties, which helps build solidarity and combats feelings of isolation.

73% of Big White Wall members said they shared their problems for the first time on Big White Wall – so the combination of anonymity, peer support, and discreet 24/7 digital access clearly helps people to open up when they otherwise wouldn’t.

The combination of the anti-social hours associated with shift work and the unique pressures of policing surely make it harder for those in service to either find people who can relate to their issues, or frankly, find people available to talk to when they need it (possibly the small hours of the night). That’s why, working with Lancashire Constabulary, Big White Wall hopes to provide a pressure valve and sympathetic ear whenever it is needed – day or night.  

The question is often asked ‘who guards the guardians,’ and for too long many have been left to cope on their own. Taking mental health seriously in all professions is clearly important, but especially so in the front line services that that keep our communities safe. 

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