The Covid-19 pandemic is having a detrimental impact on the mental health of gardaí, new data suggests.
The Garda’s internal 24-hour welfare helpline received an average of 59 calls per month between July and November 2020, by far the highest volume of calls since the service was established in 2016.
Over the preceding year, the service received 41 calls a month. In the year before that it received 36 a month.
The figures, which were released to The Irish Times following Freedom of Information requests, show an increase in activity for almost all garda mental health services during the pandemic.
An average of 204 counselling sessions, either face-to-face or by telephone, were provided to gardaí per month between July and November, up from 144 a month during the previous 12-month period.
In 2020, Garda management spent €12,826 a month on independent mental health assessments for members, up from €11,523 and €8,253 a month in 2019 and 2018 respectively.
Also, last year about 20 gardaí per month were referred for independent psychological assessment, up from 18 a month the previous year.
Lost work days
Last March, when the virus first started to take hold in Ireland, 474 work days were lost due to mental illness. In October, the last month for which figures were available, that number was 486.
There have been 247 spitting or coughing attacks on members during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as instances of gardaí being verbally abused and filmed while enforcing regulations, leading to further online abuse.
Several recent studies have shown gardaí are more likely to suffer mental health issues than the general population. Thirteen serving gardaí took their lives between 2017 and 2019, a figure four times the rate among the general population.
During the same period, 15 gardaí were granted early retirement on psychological grounds and 16,116 work days were lost due to mental ill-health.
In 2019, the force spent €467,000 on independent counselling services, more than double the amount spent in 2016.
In September last year, the Garda introduced mandatory counselling for members working in certain specialist areas. Gardaí attached to the Cyber Crime Bureau, which handles child abuse imagery cases and members of the Protective Service Units, which deal with sexual crime, now have to undergo "psychological support sessions" on entering and exiting their units and at regular intervals throughout.
“Further voluntary psychological support sessions are available during and post assignment,” the Garda said.
A Garda spokesman said the welfare of all staff “is of paramount importance to senior Garda management”.