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PTSD and policing: the former officer sharing his story to help others

Since being medically retired from the police in October 2020, Ben Pearson has written two books, started a podcast and a YouTube channel, and is working to set up a PTSD awareness charity.

Ben Pearson has a very defined philosophy when it comes to mental health.

"There’s mental illness and mental health. I’m always going to be mentally ill, I’m always going to have a mental illness. But my mental health is fantastic at the moment – I wake up every day and I smile."

The former officer, who served 19 years in West Yorkshire Police - mainly in the Roads Policing Unit - was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety after a succession of personal and professional traumas pushed him to the brink.

It was a diagnosis that, in October 2020, forced him to retire at the age of 44. Two years on, he spoke to Police Oracle about his experiences, and the positive evolution of the conversation around mental health.

The story starts on October 1, 2001, when Ben realised his childhood ambition of becoming a police officer. Based in Bradford, he acquitted himself with an attitude that has followed him since: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to put in 100%.”

He loved “bobbying”, and the feeling was mutual. While having dyslexia – for which “there was nothing in place” at the time – presented its own challenges, Ben truly came into his own when he became a traffic officer.

“I got the opportunity after around 4.5 years – now you can specialise after two years – to specialise. All the lads I joined with went off to firearms,” he said.

After initially deciding to follow that same path, a personal plea from his boss at the time meant Ben ended up in the Roads Policing Unit.

“I never looked back – I loved it,” he enthused, explaining that the role played to his skillset: “I might not know how to spell ‘arachnophobia’, but I can deal with a scene involving two dead bodies and ten cars.

“I liked dealing with criminals, but I also liked dealing with good people.”

Though in his element, the downsides of the job – together with personal tragedy – ended up bringing about Ben’s mental health issues.

Losing a parent is never easy. To lose both in less than two years is especially difficult, particularly when your job comes with an element of associated trauma.

Ben’s first encounter with grief came when he lost his mum, who died 11 days after being hospitalised for an operation on New Year’s Day. After thinking she was going to get out in a “couple of days”, the family were informed that she was being kept alive by a ventilator.

The reality of Ben’s situation settled in during a moment of reflection: “Things have been brilliant, but ever since New Year’s Day my life has just flipped outside down.”

Though his attempts to go straight back to work were flatly rejected, after two weeks Ben was thrust into the thick of the action – something in hindsight he feels was the wrong approach.

“I went back and I should’ve been told, ‘you’re on light duties, you’re on a return to work phase’, but they put me in a marked traffic car,” he said.

What happened next provoked a reaction that indicated Ben was starting to struggle mentally.

“Call comes out and it’s a child knocked down, within 200 metres from where I’m sat. I’m non-deployable, but they’re saying ‘can you go, there’s no-one else to go’, so I say I’ll go,” he explained.

While on the approach, a colleague issued a stark warning: “She says, ‘Ben, don’t go, it’s a child fatal’.” Such scenes are an unfortunate part of the job, which until this point, he had been able to compartmentalise. But this time was different.

“First day back, within the first couple of hours, I get out of the car and just burst into tears. I’ve never done it before,” said Ben, adding that he started to feel tightness in his chest as he walked towards the child.

After being removed from the scene and brought back to the station, he’s left very much alone with his thoughts. “I’m sat there, sobbing, I’ve just buried my mum, two-year-old child in the middle of the road, doing paperwork.”

In the eyes of most, this is a person struggling. But as Ben explained, that’s not as easy to detect when it’s happening to you: “You don’t know you’re getting poorly, you’re going through the motions.”

He continued: “I had all the classic signs of a mental illness; I was crying all the time, I took everything personally. I disassociated, I didn’t want to hang out with anybody.

“All I did was come in, get my bags, and go out to work – fatal, fatal, fatal.”

While in this unhealthy cycle, Ben was dealt a blow that would further destabilise his ailing mental state. “My dad turns around and says, ‘I’ve got terminal cancer’ – my dad’s my best friend. At Christmas time, we’re holding his hand, my dad dies,” he said.

After this, any efforts to appear well and functioning – however unconvincing – all but went out the window. ”I was ruined, but I was still doing the job,” said Ben, adding that colleagues began to notice because his work was suffering.

“Basically, I’m losing it – losing touch with reality. If I were me now, I’d sign the person off – say I don’t want them in work, I want you to have time off.”

After an appointment with occupational health where he was put under monitoring, Ben suffered a complete breakdown while at a minor road traffic collision. “I got to this simple bump, and as soon as I got out of the car it was like a switch had flipped,” he said.

“I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know my name, I was hyperventilating.” Describing himself as “gone”, the severity of Ben’s condition had a huge impact on his closest relationships.

“It destroyed my relationship with everyone I knew, it destroyed my relationship with my partner at the time – I’d just had a baby boy and I didn’t want to hug him,” he said.

Now, as someone who accepts he is always going to grapple with mental illness, Ben is using his experiences to help others. He has a new partner, Melissa, and his relationship with his two children, Harriet and Isaac, is stronger than ever.

But the break-up of his relationship with his first partner proved the catalyst for the total reset that had clearly been required for some time. After something of a protracted route to getting the right help, Ben entered into a journey with therapy that has helped him rebuild.

Part of that therapy involved Ben writing “cathartic” entries outlining his feelings on any given day, which went on to form his first book, ‘Handcuffed Emotions’. A second, ‘Hotel Tango 23’, followed. He has also launched a YouTube channel and a podcast – all with the aim of promoting men’s mental health and PTSD.

Though an enforced retirement was not part of the plan, Ben is able to be of service to others in a different way. He said: “If I can’t help people in uniform now, I can still help them by explaining that this is what I did, this is what I went through, this is what I’m still going through now.

“So if you see these signs and symptoms, this is how you could end up.” He’s particularly passionate about breaking the stigma around men’s mental health, especially for those who work in policing environments that have historically been more masculine.

In reference to his own decline, Ben said: “I was a white male, and I was in ops. Because you’re a white male in ops, you are expected to be this [strong].”

He does believe this is changing, however. “The younger recruits that contact me say they’re mental health aware, and they are, and I think that’s how they’re being brought into the force,” he revealed.

Accelerating this change is a huge motivator for Ben, as is putting something practical in place to help those who may be struggling like he did.

He’s aiming to do this by forming a charity, 1965 PTSD Awareness, which will get its registration number once Ben is able to raise the necessary £5,000.

Once registered, the charity’s function will be to fund private therapy for emergency service personnel who have had a diagnosis of PTSD through their “GP, psychiatrist or force doctor”.

For Ben, the rationale was simple: “Why don’t we do a charity that’s going to fund where I fell down, and there was nobody to contact me?”

A theme throughout the interview is that, as a result of his illness, Ben only deals in positivity. So it’s only natural that he holds no ill feeling about his policing journey, though he does admit that it’s something he reflects on.

“I think about it a lot, because I feel that I had years to give, I had so much to offer. This is not me being arrogant, I was good at what I did, I enjoyed what I did,” he says.

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