Joan Allan with picture of her late husband, Sergeant Roy Allan

The policeman who died from stress

The following is an article printed in the New Idea magazine in 1989. The article is as relevant today as it was then, showing the struggles and sacrifices of police officers and their spouses and the terrible toll of the job. It shows that little has changed in the past 30 years when it comes to mental health in policing. The article was published after the suicide of NSW Police Force Sergeant Roy Arthur Allan. Sergeant Roy Allan died in July of 1987 after ingesting hydrochloric acid.

Joan Allan is seated in the rumpus room of her home in Gosford, NSW. She waves in the direction of the laundry door and says calmly: “Just over there … that’s where my husband went to take his life.”

It’s almost 18 months since Police Sergeant Roy Allan, 45, swallowed a dose of lethal hydrochloric acid. And 47-year-old Joan can clearly remember her husband sprawled on the laundry floor as he uttered: “Just leave me be. I want to die.”

After a torturous final few years with Roy — whose stressful job had made him mentally ill — Joan, with tragic honesty, reveals that his suicide has relieved her of much pressure.

I feel although I’ve had a huge weight removed from my shoulders.” she says. “I feel so sorry for the wives of policemen who are sick like Roy was.

“You see. the wives are living in the same situation as the men. And they become just as sick as the fellas.”

Joan had been married to Roy for 24 years. She says he was a caring man and “a good cop”. Roy was striving to go as far as he could in the force.

But the strain of police work proved too much. Roy became chronically depressed as a result of near-brushes with death, the witnessing of the mutilated bodies of road accident victims, and the trying conditions at one-man and lock-up stations.

One night in late July, 1987, he joined Joan and daughter Susan, now 18, at the dinner table. There was no conversation, which was not unusual; Roy’s illness had been characterised by a serious withdrawal from others.

He ate half his meal, got up. then went downstairs. “Susan just said to me. ‘Dad’s on another planet’, which is what she always said when he was behaving strangely,” says Joan.

“But we actually thought he had gone to get some ice cream. The phone rang and I sang out to him to take it. And he did take it – it was a friend of ours.

“I had been keeping a good eye on him since he started becoming sick, so after about three minutes had passed. I called out. ‘Are you all right, love?’

“There was no answer, so I went downstairs to the first landing and there was only one light on. I thought, ‘Where is he?’ And then I heard movement in the laundry, so I went down … the door was open and I put the light on. Then I saw him on the floor.

“I thought he’d had a heart attack and I told Susan to ring 000. I turned him on his side and then I saw the bottle of hydrochloric acid — we had used it as a brick cleaner on one of our old houses.

We had taken it with us when we moved. “Susan brought down some milk and tried to pour it into her father’s mouth. But he wouldn’t swallow it. He said to me, ‘I love you’. And then he said, ‘Just leave me be, I want to die’.”

Roy was rushed to hospital. He died 11 hours later.

Joan says it’s hard to know when his troubles began.

Roy had spent much of his early days in one-man country stations, a time which he found very demanding.

For six years, he was also a lockup keeper at Yass, 300km south-west of Sydney.

“He was in charge of 16 men and also responsible for all prisoners,” says Joan.

“I think Yass played a big part in what happened to him. He was on call 24 hours a day. The phone would ring virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“He attended a lot of those fatal accidents on the Hume Highway. He’d come home and he couldn’t sleep — he’d have nightmares, he’d relive every accident and wish he could have done more for the people involved.”

Joan says that a policeman’s wife also undergoes considerable hardship. “The wives have a lot of things to do that aren’t very pleasant,” she says. “At the lockups, they have to cook for all the prisoners and body-search the female prisoners. They really are unpaid police.”

Joan can cite several specific incidents from which Roy never fully recovered.

After attending an aeroplane crash, he returned home and asked to be left alone.

“He was saying, ‘Don’t touch me, I’ve got to have a bath. I feel dirty’,” says Joan. “Apparently, he’d been putting pieces of bodies into a bag.”

On another occasion, in the town of Griffith, Roy was bailed up during a siege. “This bloke had a .22 carbine pointed at Roy’s head,” Joan says.

“He said to Roy, ‘Don’t move or I’ll blast your head off’. Roy broke down and cried when he came home. He said all he could see at the end of the barrel was a pair of mad animal eyes.”

What Joan can’t understand is why the Police Department allowed Roy to return to work after his illness had been diagnosed. “We came to Gosford because Roy said he needed city experience to further his career,” she says.

“This is what police are always on about: furthering their career. It’s their life — all or nothing.

“But within a few weeks he had broken down and collapsed at work.

“He was put in a psychiatric hospital for about six weeks and treated for chronic depression.

“He came back home for a couple of weeks but he wasn’t really well, so he went back to hospital. When he came home he went in to see the Police Department, which allowed him to go back to work.”

Roy collapsed on the job again, went to see a psychiatrist the next day, then killed himself that night.

Joan has also had a tough battle with the departmental bureaucrats in an attempt to gain compensation for Roy’s death. She finally received Roy’s small superannuation pay-out after months of waiting — but the department found that Roy’s death was not related to his work.

Joan was refused a police widow’s pension, a decision she is appealing against.

Meanwhile, she has had to join the dole queue. “Let’s face it, who wants an unskilled 47-year-old?” she says tersely.

“Every time I have to go to Social Security, I get into such a state.

“It is degrading. I feel disgusted to think that Roy worked all those years to give us a secure retirement and now I am having to front up for unemployment.”

Joan looks towards the ceiling and says: “You know, towards the end, Roy used to get severe diarrhea and vomiting just at the thought of going to work.

“I used to have to send him off in the train with a spare outfit of clothes.”

Psychologist Roger Peters, who has counselled several NSW police officers, has been outspoken about the alarming frequency of mental breakdown in the force. Roger likens it, in some cases, to war neurosis. “We do have a large number of police who suffer from mental disease, including anxiety, depression and burnout,” he says.

“One of the major problems for these people is that they’re not getting help because the Police Department is reticent to face up to the issue.

“There’s this tough image to uphold — you know, ‘Real men don’t cry’, and all that.”

Roger believes many police drink to relieve the stress.

“That seems to be one way that the senior police, in particular, use to deal with it,” he says.

“But, you never know when it’s really going to affect you. I’ve just been speaking to one fellow who was told in a recent armed robbery that he was going to have his brains blown out.

“Over the past 10 years he’s probably been in similar situations, whose career meant everything to him, but it was just this one that got to him. He can’t get over it.”

Roger says there should be more debriefing for police. “They should also talk to their wives,” he says. “They don’t talk to their wives because they believe ignorance is bliss.

“But their wives know something is wrong when their husbands are coming home drunk all the time or are sitting in front of TV like vegetables.”

• A Police and Families Support Group has been set up in NSW. Organiser Greg Barnes can be contacted on (049) 33 3301.

Story: Matthew Fynes-Clinton
Picture: Andrew Jacob

NEW IDEA, 4/2/89


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