I retired from West Midlands Police in December 2018 after 24 years’ service and I couldn’t be happier about it. The only downside was that it was due to ill health which was a direct result of the conditions I faced whilst at work. Here is my story of battling with depression, anxiety and stress, telling management about it, the decisions they were making which directly resulted in sickness levels rising and which ultimately finished my career.
I joined WMP in 1995 and went through the usual mill of response work, Neighbourhood Police work and the occasional drugs and crime squads and a stint in surveillance. I loved my job. I got promoted in 2009 to Sgt and worked with CPS and then in 2010 within the Control Room. Initially the stress within the control room was bearable. Just enough officers to cope with a few days/nights where support was taken from elsewhere to assist with demand. It was never easy but it was controllable. After all that’s what a control room is amongst other things, a place that controls resources and deploys them accordingly, oh and a place that gets blamed for everything bad that happens along the way.
In 2015 everything seemed to change for the worse. Budget cuts and decisions made by senior management as a result that defied all logic. Restructure after restructure of force resources and control rooms. Systems and policies put in places that didn’t work. We told them it wouldn’t work but they did it anyway. When it didn’t work we were told we weren’t using the systems correctly or that the negative regime in control rooms had to change. The stress started to kick in bigtime.
So 10 control rooms were cut to 5 and my work rate tripled overnight. The stress of dealing with the threat and harm within 500 open logs was tangible, not just by me but most definitely by my RADs(controllers). The constant shout of “SARGE, I’VE RUN OUT OF BOBBIES” echoed through the room. The panic of trying to resource immediate logs and those that we couldn’t get to the day before just rolled on and on. I went home at the end of every shift frazzled and worrying about whether we’d done all we could as a team that day. I now know we did do all we could and more besides. Things started to play on my mind though, heavily.
Before I started work I would worry about what the day ahead would hold for me. What challenges and more importantly what nightmares. Every day we started from behind, trying to catch up from the previous shift. I would read logs that were days old and still not resourced. They contained some real harm within them. The issue was fed back to senior management that we were drowning in logs and that if something wasn’t done soon then people were going to be seriously injured or worse. The stress on staff was taking its toll too. The sickness level in the department was higher than any other and with good reason. Senior management came back with an appointment system. Basically if we couldn’t get to a job in real time then if we could reduce the threat, harm and risk to that person then we could book an appointment for them to see an officer at a later time. Sounds good doesn’t it? Without going into the logistics of it, for low level stuff it was good but it was being used for allsorts and with the best of intentions too.
So another restructure later, less officers on a response team and more work coming in. The maths isn’t difficult here but we were still told that we were still being negative and the system worked. I started losing sleep, going to bed with work on my mind and feeling anxious and nervous pretty much all the time. My friends noticed a change in me and my marriage failed as a result. Things seemed hopeless. A job I used to love had all but turned me into a nervous wreck. I collapsed several times whilst at work and was taken to hospital. Following several tests and scans it was deemed that I had suffered TIA’s or mini strokes. Stress being a massive contributory factor. I was released with medication to treat my symptoms. I was told by a consultant that if I didn’t learn to cope better I would be seriously ill. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia also around the same time. My body didn’t feel my own and neither did my mind. Occupational Health was consulted, I was placed as a restricted officer but it was deemed the control room was suitable for me to work in still.
I went into work one day on a late shift. The level of work with the room was unbearable. As soon as I sat down the pressure was on me, I broke. I sat in my chair in despair and for the first time in my adult life very alone and afraid. A colleague noticed I was struggling and sent me home. I was off sick for 18 months. I had suffered a nervous breakdown and my life had imploded. Over the 18 months I was off ill, work had suddenly taken a caring approach towards me. It had been recognised that the pressure I had been put under was directly related to my role. I cannot fault what happened from a work perspective from that point onwards. I was counselled by work and diagnosed with depression and PTSD also. I had been suffering for a long time but it took my body to almost shutdown before anything was done. I had told my managers on several occasions how I was feeling along the way too but it was forgotten about, I had become a difficult to manage manager.
I decided that my life had to change and I was the only one who really could do it. After a long hard think I decided to apply for an Ill Health Retirement from my job. It was a difficult decision because nothing was certain. After 2 ½ years I finally got my retirement following a long and arduous system of appointments with doctors and medical records going backwards and forwards. The stress of the procedure also made me feel terrible and the day I saw the Selected Medical Practitioner to decide my case made me as nervous as I remember for my interview for becoming a police officer some 24 years previously. I was told on the day the decision and that my case had been approved. My heart skipped a beat.
So I am now a few weeks on from my retirement. My journey to recovery is still ongoing with meds and the new job of putting myself first from now on. For the first time in a long time I can see light. I can see a future and it is me outside of the job. I have a new relationship which is going well too.
If you have gotten this far then thanks but do me a favour please.
If you find yourself suffering any of what I have described, you need to tell someone and quick. You are not weak, you need to be heard and you need time spent on you. Don’t do what I did which was run on empty for ages telling myself tomorrow would be better. I was ill, I just didn’t know I was and how ill I’d become.
Mental illness is real and around us always.
We need to recognise the signs and symptoms more and ask each other if we are ok. You never know you might just help someone by doing so.
Simon Harriman (Sgt retired).
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