By Simon Gillard on 12 May 2018
I have had four suicide attempts. I never thought my life would end up with me saying those words. But, that is how life can play out and, I’m still here.
I joined the New South Wales Police Force at 19 full of hope, motivated to help others and make a change. I knew I would witness death and the devastation of people, places and horrific events that would forever be etched in my mind. Coping with these memories and to survive in my job, I learned very quickly to compartmentalise, wear a mask and push my experiences deep away inside… I didn’t make the time to reflect on them… another murder, armed robbery, or suicide was awaiting my attention.
On reflection, I never really had the capacity to understand how I felt. The culture within the police force was hard lined. Emotional weakness was not supported by the higher echelon and there was always the fear that your peers may treat you differently if you displayed emotional weakness. In over 15 years of policing, eleven of them as a Detective, I never had one de-brief. We all went through witnessing horror and like a sheep I followed suit suppressing any emotion. There was also the ‘I’m a man, I’m tough’ thinking, how retrospectively wrong I was to have that mindset! I know now as a man (and for all men) that we are far stronger to reach out and seek help.
During my career, I witnessed fellow police officers who were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Only because of a communication leak or due to rising the ranks I was informed directly. I witnessed their career crumble and soon after, they were gone. I recall thinking on the first occasion, PTSD, what the hell is that? I didn’t understand it and I willfully didn’t want to know about it. Was it contagious? One colleague had 20 years policing experience and now he was assigned to desk duties with his firearm padlocked away. He was a sheep in the same paddock but now, a black sheep. In hindsight, he was persecuted for being human. He left the force very soon after. I wondered later had he ever had a de-brief or proactive care to normalise the ‘stress and trauma cocktail’ our profession constantly dealt. And, what about all the many others previous who vanished, were they affected by PTSD?
In 2009, following my role investigating a horrific long-term investigation, PTSD grabbed hold of me. I too lost my career.
I started to research this life-changing and life-threatening injury, PTSD. I looked into the police work environment, as well as the social environment within. It became clear to me that front-line workers were seen as a commodity and not an investment. Where was the proactive, early intervention care that should be afforded to these workers to make sure they are mentally sound? Where was the culture recognising that compassionated, empathetic people join these high-stress professions to help others, but become compassion fatigued shells?
I want a change and for conversations like this to start happening… Inspector to a constable: “The death message you gave to that family yesterday must have been hard. Would you like to talk about it? I’m here for you and will support you if you have had any type of reaction?”
Yes, reaction, Post Traumatic Stress Reaction! It seems quite normal for a human being to have an emotional reaction when confronted with stress and trauma. Surely the word ‘reaction’ in replace of ‘disorder’ would pave a way for culture change. It would stop the fear of career loss, feeling ashamed and even suicide. So, why is it a disorder? The connotations associated with this word do not allow for critical early intervention.
When we don’t seek early help, internalised emotions and feelings can fester, waiting and hiding for that final ‘trigger’ moment when the past can also rear its ugly head. Like a sponge soaking up water, there is only so much it can withhold. But what if we can wring the sponge dry on a constant basis, understanding there is no shame having a reaction to a traumatic incident. Moreover, where support is proactively available and the culture can be trusted, without fear of career loss, shame or persecution. It is not a disorder being human after a traumatic event. It is a normal stress reaction.
It’s time for change and time for the word ‘disorder’ and its connotations to be replaced with ‘reaction’. We can save lives and change the archaic culture. We must help our emergency services, military, nurses, corrections and other stress and traumatic professionals seek help as early as possible, make it normal and remove that word ‘disorder’ for good. It is time for reaction! Post Traumatic Stress Reaction (PTSR).