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Faster mental health support needed to save careers, says specialist

Getting officers affected by trauma and anxiety into treatment faster could save careers, according to a police wellbeing specialist.

A 24-hour counselling helpline – the first of its kind in the country - and fast-track assessment by GPs are among the measures introduced by Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies after officers revealed high levels of mental health issues.

Lauren Soames, head of Workplace Health, Safety and Wellbeing at Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies told Police Oracle that delays in getting NHS assessments was delaying treatment that could save careers and months of sick leave.

Getting faster assessments by GPs and mental health experts followed a significant rise in reporting of stress, depression and anxiety among officers in the two forces. In Norfolk, three out of four officers have reported experiencing mental health issues.

The constabularies are now working with Walnut Tree Health and Wellbeing CIC to improve access to services.

Lauren Soames told Police Oracle: “We don’t want to have to replace the NHS but I also don’t want our officers off sick for months on end because they can’t access services or see a GP.

She added: “With complex cases, getting people into the NHS quickly for PTS screening matters. Timing is really important.”

She explained: “We had a police officer who phoned in sick on a Monday and said they couldn’t do the job any more. We were able to get him fully fit within the time he’d have been waiting just to have the assessment.”

The officer was offered Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), a revolutionary treatment involving a series of treatment sessions with a trained therapist. They use the patient’s side-to-side eye movements while recalling a traumatic incident to stimulate the brain.

Ms Soames said: “This isn’t going work for everybody but it gives people the option. If you can expand the range of options which officers have, they have choices. Offering that range also shows how serious you are about treatment.”

The joint team has also developed an online self-help assessment system that helps early reporting. Another innovation has included organising colleague meetings before officers return to work.

A team of occupational therapists has been set up to avoid officers or staff covering the large geographical area covered by both forces – ending car journeys of up to five hours.

Another measure has included getting new recruits to meet former sergeant Ali Livingstone who quit Suffolk Police following a mental breakdown. Nicknamed Supercop after arresting 1,000 suspects in 18 months, he left the force after 18 years due to post-traumatic stress.

He encourages recruits to report early or look for signs of mental health issues in colleagues.

Another project, backed by Police Care UK funding is creating 150 mental health first aiders. The goal is to have 5,500 officers trained within three years.

The new measures are already attracting plaudits; last month they won the Royal Society for Public Health's Workplace Health and Wellbeing Award.

Joint working in the public sector has historically not always worked in the public sector. So how has the team achieved results in an under-funded area of the police service across two forces?

Ms Soames said: “We have to think of different ways of doing things and be mindful of the two cultures that we have – knowing who our leaders are and what drives them.”

But a key issue has been a willingness of both forces to focus on developing preventative services rather than attempting to find extra cash for existing services.

She told Police Oracle: “We’ve been fixing people rather than trying to prevent them becoming ill in the first place.”

One big challenge remains: overcoming the culture of suffering in silence and not seeking help.

Ms Soames said: “Officers are good at helping others but not very good at helping themselves. You’ve got to see it in you – and if not signpost a colleague that needs help.

“Getting people to speak out and ask for help before it becomes an issue is so important. I tell people that asking for help won’t affect their promotion; going off sick for six months will.”

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