Gardaí reluctant to seek help to cope with stresses of job

Figures show 281 out of 12,850 guards used counselling helpline since it was set up

Report shows gardaí are four times more likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety, compared with the general population. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Report shows gardaí are four times more likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety, compared with the general population. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Psychotherapists Linda Balfe and Paula Richards have spent years dealing with gardaí who have suffered from their experiences on the job: the brutality of street fights, the horrors of car crashes and the pain of suicides.

“Gardaí won’t take a receipt and put it towards their expenses because they have said it would have an impact on their job,” said Balfe, who co-runs Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Co Dublin. Often, officers have struggled to afford the sessions.

They rarely come with an open declaration that they are finding it difficult to cope with the stresses of the job. “What brings guards in for therapy is stuff like domestic violence, drugs or chaotic behaviour,” she said.

New figures obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act show that 281 out of 12,850 gardaí have used the Carecall counselling helpline since it was set up last year by Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.

Research commissioned by the Garda Representative Association (GRA) claims that gardaí are four times more likely to suffer from stress, depression and anxiety, compared with the general population.

However, the Carecall numbers illustrate a reluctance to seek help, a number of rank-and-file officers say. Some fear, despite assurances to the contrary, that calls would be recorded and reported. Others believe “a lad culture” in the force discourages people from seeking help.

Undermined

The working environment in Garda stations causes significant pressures. Some gardaí feel undermined by their sergeants: “[The numbers] of sexual relationships and affairs that happen within stations is huge.

“That’s the only way of releasing how they feel because they’ve experienced a traumatic event together, that’s their way of getting comfort. The mental health of gardaí needs to be normalised; normalise the reaction to witnessing a suicide or a road traffic accident,” she added.

Gardaí are reluctant to talk about the issue, even privately. Two who were prepared to do so insisted upon anonymity, saying they would be deemed unstable, weak and unfit for work if they sought counselling, or if they let anyone know that they had done so.

One of the gardaí, who is stationed in the southeast, criticised his superiors, claiming that they are “unapproachable” and said the stress of the job is having major implications on the mental health of gardaí.

“The people at the top [in depicting Garda work] create this rose garden, this big bed of roses and it’s far from it, it’s more like a bed of silage and it stinks of shit. Carnage is the only word to describe some accidents we have to go to,” he said.

Again and again, gardaí point to the services offered to fire fighters. After every traumatic event, fire fighters are debriefed when they return to their station where their station officer provides a listening ear.

Confidential services

Known as critical incident stress management (CISM), fire officers and their families can get access to confidential services by phone, or face-to-face 24/7, 365 days, provided by the Voluntary Health Insurance and funded by county councils.

Describing how CISM services help his team, station officer at Bagenalstown fire station in Co Carlow, Mick Hogan, said: “If I think after a bad incident that the crew need some counselling, then I make the call.

“It’s called a defusing, we get the counsellor down and it’s voluntary to attend but everyone always attends. If not they can avail of the confidential service on their own,” Hogan said.

Besides CISM, fire fighters receive annual mental health training. Equally, stress management is available to them for six months after they retire. With greater use, the stigma is going, he added. When one fire fighter speaks, others join in.

“You can’t go through life without some problems, it’s great that CISM provides that support and it also allows for us to acknowledge the good job we had done or how we could improve. In our line of work we are suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] all of the time so there has to be something put in place.

“If I know that my colleague isn’t feeling alright after an incident I won’t wait for them to say it to me. You put your arm around one another and ask if they’re alright,” said the Bagenalstown fire officer.

By contrast, president of the GRA Ciarán O’Neill said that the 24/7 telephone counselling service available to his member operates only as a band-aid solution to a career-long problem affecting thousands of officers.

“The GRA is calling for an immediate occupational stress survey to be commissioned by senior management across the force. Psychological and social assessments are required under health and safety legislation.

“Garda management are responsible and are failing frontline gardaí at every turn when it comes to gardaí and their mental health. It is way past time they began to take this responsibility seriously before it comes too late for some members,” he said, in a statement.

Mental health

If fire fighters have come to terms with discussion about their mental health, the same does not apply in the Garda Síochána. Saying he feared becoming “the butt of canteen jokes” in relation to speaking out on mental health, one garda in the midwest said: “I have no doubt whatsoever that I would be discussed in the pub.

“You see it happening with the whistleblowers – they have a ‘we’ll get you back method’ – if you speak out against the flow of things you’re ostracised and left hanging out to dry,” he said.

Under existing rules, gardaí who have witnessed traumatic events, such as murders, or road traffic deaths, are supposed to be contacted by the Garda’s peer support network. However, gardaí claim the telephone calls never come.

President of the Irish Association of Suicidology and Limerick TD Dan Neville fully accepts the complaints made by rank-and-file, arguing that a major culture change is needed in the top echelons since the nature of policing cannot change.

“I think that the leadership in the gardaí should recognise that situations arise that create a lot of stress for people and have a policy in place to deal with that,” he said. “We are nowhere near proper mental health services.”

€200m has been allocated to advanced ICT systems under Nóirín O’Sullivan’s modernisation and renewal programme for 2017. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins
€200m has been allocated to advanced ICT systems under Nóirín O’Sullivan’s modernisation and renewal programme for 2017. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins

Garda stress and injuries by numbers

408 gardaí were injured on duty in 2016.

5,422 gardaí reported injuries in past 10 years. There were five fatalities over the period

80 per cent of police respondents in the UK reported feelings of stress, low mood, anxiety or other mental health and wellbeing difficulties, according to a Police Federation survey in the UK. Similarly anecdotal evidence is now coming from the front line of the service in Ireland.

40 per cent is the overall injury rate for gardaí in 2014. The injury rate for other professions nationally is 3.4 per cent.

€200 million has been allocated to advanced information and communications technology (ICT) systems under Nóirín O’Sullivan’s modernisation and renewal programme for 2017, which focuses on security, crime and road policing. She also stated in the 2017 annual policing plan that the force would see a renewal of “our culture” and that gardaí would be provided with guidance, support and appropriate training in order to do their jobs effectively.