Spotlight on organisational culture and police mental health (part 1)

In these series of articles, we are taking a close look at the issues plaguing the police agencies in Australia. The people and policies that maintain the status quo at and the ugly stranglehold of mental health stigma.  Note: parts of this article may be distressing to some readers.

There are many things you should never say to someone who experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, one of those things being “you chose the wrong job”.

In this article, we are focusing on recent statements made by former Northern Territory Police Assistant Commissioner Bruce Wyatt and the responses that his statements attracted by currently serving and former police officers.

Two weeks ago we have posted a link on Facebook to an article (“Carnage on roads takes a terrible toll on police too“) where Territory Police Association president Paul McCue said, “like the grieving families, Territory police have also done it tough over the past days”. Mr McCue talked about the necessity of providing help for police officers who witness those terrible incidents on our roads.

Road trauma affects everyone. It affects families, schools, it can affect entire communities and the police officers who are first on the site of a fatal motor vehicle incident.

What was intended as an opportunity to raise awareness of the trauma that Northern Territory Police officers face, instead became a discussion on how that trauma is managed by police agencies as former NT Police Assistant Commissioner Bruce Wyatt started a tirade berating police officers exposed to these traumatic incidents. 

In his comments, Mr Wyatt said that “if you can’t cope, you’ve chosen the wrong vocation.” He was adamant that mangled bodies and other aspects of distressing incidents are “just part of the job”. He questioned why the issue of trauma is raised at all. Undoubtedly, he felt that highway patrol officers don’t deserve any help. He said that the incidents are “unpleasant, yes, but get on with it or choose another job.” He then added “before the lounge chair experts get excited and spray their uninformed views, I say this as someone who was “in the job”, in the NT, for 32 years”.

The Facebook post was seen by many and the blood of some readers began to boil. Some of them were exposed to varying degrees of trauma and to them, it is still a daily struggle.

Mr Wyatt is not alone in his views, there are many more like him (of the “old guard”) who offer nothing but contempt and who stifle the efforts to address police officers’ total wellbeing. They do it either because of blissful ignorance, their misguided belief of invincibility or both. We have seen it happen in all police organisations in Australia and in some overseas.

In one infamous incident, Northern Ireland Police chief berated a struggling officer, saying “stop wallowing in self-pity, dry your eyes and get on with the job or quit”. PSNI then launched a campaign of revenge against all officers who dared to question the chief (at a great cost to the taxpayers). We don’t know what happened to the police officer as he disappeared from social media. 

We weren’t going to sit idle; we have informed Mr Wyatt that more police officers are dying of suicide than any other cause and it can be prevented. We are genuinely happy that Mr Wyatt did not experience debilitating trauma, but we were compelled to call him out on his lack of compassion for struggling police.

Former NSW Police Force Detective, PTSD survivor and published author Simon Gillard said this in response:

Bruce, you are (thank god, were!) part of the problem! An old school cultural problem that has seen many police suicide! 
 
Any person who joins any occupation where stress and trauma is faced on a daily basis becomes a victim of vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress and overtime forms compassion fatigue for self survival and career survival.
 
Basically, we wear a mask, compartmentalise what we see and do, and become Teflon-coated. These traumas are ‘part of the job’ as you say and that is correct. But, the way you imply to either harden up or ship out is beyond ridiculous, for a former officer of 32 years! Your message tells me you have possibly contributed to the demise of good police being an ASS com! 
 
Your culture is unhealthy resilience – endure adversity until you either burnout or are able to early enough get a corridor job and eat cake. The latter you have achieved! Well done, superman! 
 
Science tells us trauma makes a human being further susceptible to trauma and at some stage without intervention can lead to the person formulating Post Traumatic Stress whereby they are then not the witness but the victim. 
 
Early intervention is key and your abhorrent culture does not allow for that! How many cops become Alcos, divorce, gamblers because they are not dealing with trauma and stress early enough! These men and women are an investment, not a mere number commodity as you treated them! 
 
We join the police as empathetic people who want to help others and make a difference full well knowing what we are going to see and do! The culture changes these people to lose their empathy having to endure adversity! 
 
People like you do not do anyone any favours, the police or the public too worried to get support due to a filthy “burn them out” culture!
 
I’ve worked with a 35 year D/Sgt Homicide veteran who investigated, arrested and charged Ivan Milat to conviction. This amongst many other high profile homicides. 
 
One day while you were ticking and flicking, eating a cake, he walked into his workplace, removed his firearm and suicided! 35 years!
 
But, as you say he chose the wrong vocation! No, he needed a culture to allow for him to get some help!
 
Your remark is nothing short of vile and just goes to show how far behind the police is! 

I question your own mental health as a possible narcissist or sociopath! Please talk to someone as ‘It’s ok, not to be ok’.
 

Simon Gillard makes an excellent point: police are compassionate individuals, trained to care for their communities, but who cares for them? With early intervention, major mental health problems can be avoided – only if the organisation allowed for such intervention. 

This year already we have seen too many suicides of police officers in Australia. They could have been prevented if the officers were afforded the understanding, basic human compassion, and offered meaningful help before it was too late. Offering help would have been the correct course of action, as opposed to telling them to “change your job”.

Former veteran Northern Territory Police Officer Steven Isles (son of veteran Police Officer Senior Sergeant Mick Isles) relied on his lived experience in his response:

“Bruce, sometimes it’s the pyramid scheme and adverse subculture that wears members down more than what they
see.
 
My father may have taken his life and he may not have but either way he weathered all he saw and attended however it was corruption through the ugly side of commissioned officers that either way leaves blood on their hands.
 
I agree to an extent that if road traumas or similar, including the sight of blood impacts you in unhealthy ways than get help and if that doesn’t work seek alternate employment.
 
Sometimes however, given everyone has a breaking point, some don’t know what that is until it happens. When I lost my old man I had management civilian and uniformed from within NTPOL spreading rumours that I had killed my father rather than offering any welfare support.”

Despite Steven’s suffering after losing his father, the management decided to amplify that suffering instead of offering any help. The officer who signed a blank cheque to lay down his life to protect his community was now branded a dangerous criminal. No help was forthcoming.

Another police officer, who chose to remain anonymous, offered this in response to Mr Wyatt’s comment, also focusing on the organisation’s management:

How many of those 32 years have been spent in your lofty ivory tower, former Asst. Commissioner Wyatt? How long since you regularly walked the beat (and not on a guided tour, I mean shift in, shift out?)
 
Suicide is killing more Police Officers than anything else, and your attitude is essentially “harden up”?
 
The situations Police Officers deal with are unnatural. They are that which psychologists agree humans are not designed to be exposed to. Our evolution hasn’t caught up to include high speed car crashes and gunshot wounds. More so, the human reaction to these events is something that cannot be determined until after the event or events.
 
Your cavalier attitude towards the health and wellbeing of members is appalling, and I for one am glad you have retired if that is your opinion.
 
Do you also oppose the issue of ballistic rated vests and accoutrements? After all, being shot, stabbed, and attacked is an expected part of “the job”. Perhaps members who can’t handle a stab wound occasionally just aren’t cut out for the vocation of Policing either.
 
A recent article also pointed out low level stress which, by your apparent attitude and former position, I’m guessing you may hold some ownership. I quote:
 
“However, while trauma and PTSD are undoubtedly important, recent research has found that police officers also experience significant distress from repeated exposure to lower-level stresses. These include work experiences such as:
 

  • bureaucratic management styles;
  • insensitivity to personal distress;
  • unfair decision-making by managers;
  • seemingly arbitrary rules;
  • poor consultation with staff;
  • constantly shifting priorities;”

 
That is why you are part of the problem. If a factory owner refused to install safety guards on machines despite employees regularly dying as a result, instead just telling them to find new jobs if they couldn’t handlen it, society would be outraged. The bosses would be hauled before Court by regulatory bodies, and criminal charges would be laid.
So yes, expect to cop some flak for your backwards, 1980’s mentality towards member welfare. Times have changed, not thanks to you it seems.

Every day, we hear about yet another police officer who was chewed up and spat out by the organisation that they devoted their entire adult lives to – only to end up on the scrap heap.  While there are many good leaders, bad managers can make your life a living nightmare.

Mr Wyatt replied, saying that he was the one who introduced the Glock and “moved us to being a routinely armed force.” Curiously, he then vaguely mentioned that: “I have recently worked to progress issues associated with PTSD”.

What exactly has he done to address PTSD issues? The problem is that he only decided to recognise PTSD once he became irrelevant after retiring from the force. He had a chance to make real changes, but was either too afraid to do so or didn’t care. The time is long past, and once you retire, no one listens to you, and Mr Wyatt had 32 years to make himself heard. He was in a unique position because while non-commissioned officers must toe the line, as an Assistant Commissioner, he had substantial influence and he squandered it as far as recognition of mental trauma is concerned.

In 2015, Northern Territory Police under Commissioner Reece Kershaw announced welfare officers to support the members. Three welfare officers to be exact, and one chaplain to support and counsel 1400 officers spread out across  1,349,129 square kilometres. Much more needs to be done and we will discuss it in following articles.

The anonymous police officer replied, not mincing his words with justified anger:

“As if to illustrate my point, you highlight your move to arm officers to prevent serious physical injury yet, despite that you dismiss the idea that someone might be suffering equally debilitating injuries – just because you can’t see blood.
 
As for your claim about progressing issues around PTSD, I find that baffling. How can someone who understands and has dealt with people who have experienced PTSD make such an ignorant statement as your initial comment, especially when so many sufferers cite that managerial attitude as an aggravating factor.
 
I’ve heard stories first-hand of members approaching management and asking for a change or alteration of duty due to emerging mental health concerns, only to be met with “if you can’t do it then you can’t do your job. You might as well f*ck off”. Nearly a decade later since jumping ship these members are doing better, but not without a lot of work and getting away from such a toxic management attitude.
 
So the old adage of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” might be catchy, but stop believing it. Words like yours, and the attitudes behind them, are harmful to many of our, of YOUR, brothers and sisters…”

Indeed, Mr Wyatt’s words were harmful.  We have reassured the readers that Mr Wyatt will be barred from making further comments on our social media accounts to prevent a repeat of this incident.

Another commenter asked:

“But when did you last attend a fatal [incident] involving kids?”

Mr Wyatt then backtracked and while he didn’t answer the question, he did acknowledge that those incidents are traumatic.

They are traumatic! PTSD can be prevented if officers receive the right support immediately following an incident and followup support. Police officers experience different trauma and in turn suffer varying degrees of mental health problems: detectives and highway patrol members will have different experiences but all will need help at some time.

Every incident adds a drop in the bucket until it spills and then it’s too late. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence or a career-ender, because stress, when managed early, will not lead to PTSD. It’s harder to do that in high-intensity combat at war, but easier in policing, as long as genuine help is offered and provided regularly.

Many experts agree that a cultural change is needed within the police service to stop blaming the victim of mental illness.

Mr Wyatt’s statement “if you can’t cope, you chose the wrong job” is contemptible and his subsequent responses showed the contempt he held for those who can’t cope. We were forced to remove him from our Facebook page for breaching the Terms and Conditions (flamebaiting, i.e. posting a comment with the intent of eliciting extreme responses) and to reduce the harm to those struggling.

Several readers and PTSD survivors complained that Mr Wyatt’s rant caused them significant distress. They’re already going through enough to be told to “get on or choose another job”.

Steven Isles added from his personal and painful experience:

Broader policing subculture and reclusive reluctance to relinquish any controls inhibits progress on welfare support and addressing neurological issues equal with physical ones.
 
In October 2009 after the disappearance of my father (a 36 year policing veteran), Leonie Stokes OAM, then Director of Human Resources NTPOL, contacted the Consultant Psychiatrist I had been seeing in the Northern Territory and rather than expressing concern asked, “Would you say he (Mr Isles) is a psychopath?” The psychiatrist responded “Mr Isles certainly did not meet the criteria for such a diagnoses.”
 
Director of Resources Stokes then asked the psychiatrist whether he thought Mr Isles had anything to do with his father’s disappearance. The psychiatrist sought clarification from Director HR Stokes and Stokes, “Could Mr Isles have killed his father?”. This is something that was spread to Queensland Police Union and Police Media and used in an attempt to white ant our family.
 
Later, the ever reliable John McRoberts colluded with QPOL in a bid to silence me personally and together alleged that I had threatened to shoot the Queensland Police Commissioner.
 
I took QPOL to court and my firearms licence was reinstated effective immediate and I was later sworn by the Queensland Government as a Justice of the Peace.
 
I’m still confused however if there were even a remote chance of truth to the fabricated allegation, would I still be able to hold a firearms licence and would the Qld Government have sworn me as a guardian of the community?
 
Moral to this story is if they (management) are capable of this across two policing jurisdictions, then one can only hope there is real and progressive improvement on implementation of welfare in policing.
 
On another note, concern over Director HR, Stokes’actions was raised in writing by the consultant psychiatrist to then commissioner John McRoberts and it was never investigated or acted upon.

Another commenter expressed what many feel and experience on a daily basis:

That’s why I stuck to black humour for the 12 years I was in the job. As a coping mechanism. But a few things still hit me hard. Usually at night when sleep is eluding me.

Black humour as cognitive behaviour strategy is a way to cope with the terrible things experienced every day. We don’t know if this person reached out for help or the likeliness of any help being offered. We could only hope they were never told that they chose the wrong job and we thank them for their service.

Where to now?

We are not under any illusion that the problems can be fixed quickly, it may well take many years to finally do away with the mental health stigma in the Australian police agencies.

In a recent study by Justice For Workers Queensland, only 4% of surveyed police officers indicated that their managers are supportive of members who sustain psychological injuries.

When asked “if you were to experience depression, PTSD or another stress-related psychological injury today, would you feel comfortable advising your superior officers?”, 84 percent of those surveyed responded with a resounding NO.

Another study, published in Lancet Psychiatry in October, concluded creating a link between manager training and the reduction of hours off sick on workers’ compensation. The study found that managers who were trained on how to provide regular, early and practical help for mental health problems got firefighters back to work about a day and a half faster, saving $35 for every dollar spent.

Cultural changes within management must happen.  Letting experienced police officers go comes at a high cost to the community and the lives of those officers. In the next article, we will present testimony from current and former police and recommendations for police organisations in Australia to implement. 

If you feel like there is no one you can turn to, there are external sources for help from people who were once in your shoes:

911 Help Site – professional online peer support group run by police, paramedics, firefighters, dispatchers and others

Blue Hope – run by cops, for cops

Retired Peer Support Officer Program – peer support program for retired Victoria Police and AFP members

The Forgotten 000s – exposing malicious managers and peer support for New South Wales police officers

You can also ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

Copyright © 2017 True Blue Line – contact for licencing.

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