Mon, Jun

Are We All At Risk? Who Protects The Police Officer? Let's Deliberate

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The type of occupational stress experienced by personnel is just unimaginable. People go on duty tours for 7 days (168) hours in environments where even places of convenience aren’t available.

 Written By Cherry Nanewortor - It’s such a sad occurrence. Cases such as this, l am afraid to say will continue if our attitude towards mental health remain largely the same. Too much system induced stressors without due assessment of their impact and consequences on personnel. 

The type of occupational stress experienced by personnel is just unimaginable. People go on duty tours for 7 days (168) hours in environments where even places of convenience aren’t available. Officers perform night duties continuously for more than five years, every single night without taking annual leave.

Related: 108 police personnel diagnosed with mental illness

Since l came into close contact with and eventually joined the Police Wervice, l have realized that the level of resilience put up by officers of the Ghana Police service is unmatched. However, excesses like self-harm, suicide, friendly fire, poor judgment on the job, domestic violence which are all consequences of improperly managed or untreated mental health problem will continue to happen if our handling of mental health changes and mental illness remain the same. Many commanders and Station officers do not show much concern when it comes to the mental health of officers under them. Unless a person shows signs of serious physical ill-health, they're not given a simple permission to attend hospital for treatment in the name of 'there're no men'. My question is: how soon can the service fill a vacancy of officers permanently lost to suicide or natural death?

Before someone commits suicide, they always give some form of indication. It's left to the friends, colleagues, families and supervisors to recognize and provide help or assist them to get the needed intervention.

Oftentimes, the system makes the ordinary policeman to believe they're iron clad and above suffering mental health disorders. The general feeling out there (within the Ghanaian populace) is that when you show and admit mental health problem, it’s a sign of weakness. The Ghana police service is a microcosm of the Ghanaian population and hence this perception abounds as well. Many of us still have negative perceptions of psychological and psychiatric issues. To this end, many commanders and supervisors don't see it as a necessity to refer affected police officers for psychological interventions. The impression is that the police officer is supposed to shrug off his/her mental health challenges and move on. If not, then you are a 'weakling' for not being emotionally string enough to absorb trauma. This attitude doesn't encourage seeking for psychological support among officers.

Just imagine this scenario:

An officer visited a fatal accident scene and had to personally assist in 'packing' human body parts into body bags. Imagine the pool of blood and wails of injured accident victims. After leaving the accident scene, what next? Nothing, life goes on! Absolutely no form of psychological intervention as part of the debriefing process for such officer. If you witness our (Ghana Police Service's) debriefing process following an exchange of fire or discharge of arms in which someone was killed or physically hurt, you will marvel. There's no emphasis on mental health at all.

No type of military or police training across the globe makes police officers super humans devoid of emotions and thoughts. Some/many nights after hard operations and assignment in which officers are exposed to robbery victims, accident victims, exchange of fire etc. will be sleepless nights for officers. But what's the expectation of such commanders and in-charges? Officer must report to work next day and perform their duties as usual as if nothing happened.

The result is that many officers usually resort to negative coping strategies such as using alcohol, drugs, open display of aggression etc. to deal with their stress.

Many times, when l see officers either to or from duties with their rifles strapped, l see a lot of extreme stress and frustration, especially among those with the operational units. I always fear the possibility of one of such persons losing their cool and opening fire in public. A few years ago, an officer who performed night duties at a very plush hotel for many years lost his mind while on duty, one night, at the hotel. He held the hotel staff and guests hostage for hours. In fact, a flight moving out from Kotoka Int. Airport was delayed because of that incident. That officer reportedly indicated to his superiors his ill health, burnout and acute stress but was still given AK47 to go on duty. The only thing that saved the hostages that night was weapon failure. Can you imagine the Anti-Terror Squad went for a rescue mission at the hotel without safety helmets and body armor? Oh yeah. The deranged officer pulled his trigger, but the weapon failed to fire. This incident did not catch public attention largely because the hotel did its best to prevent media publicity to save their business.

This police officer did suddenly become psychotic. However, once a person looks physically fit, we doubt their mental ill health. We do not take notice of changes in their emotions/feeling, thinking process and behavior. If this kind of approach continues, l fear for the worst, one day.

The fact is that the most recent suicide case and all other suicide incidents among police officers did not happen out of the blue. There were INDICATIONS of suicidal tendencies and behavior which were ignored by station officers, district or unit commanders, workmates, friends and families of the said victims of suicide.

I have roamed this country and addressed more than 2500 police officers. The reality is that officers are denied annual leave (which is their lawful rights) in the name of ‘there are no men'. Officers are not even compensated financially for forfeiting their annual leaves as stipulated by the labor law. Officers are told 'annual leave' is a privilege.

Exhaustion and burnout is everywhere. In my clinic, 60% of police officers l see every year have various forms of alcohol use disorders to deal with. Majority of these developed alcohol use as a means of coping with the work stress as well as organizationally induced stressors. Most of these cases only land at the Psychologist's because there was a physical health emergency that needed to be treated.

Very high number of officers at the SWAT, GDU, Parliamentary Duties have serious burnout syndromes which the system does not even recognize and therefore will not support them to treat.  It's easier for a commander to refer a subordinate for mental health assessment and treatment than referring to Medical Board, but many commanders will choose the latter. I haven't seen a Ghana Police Service's policy on mental health yet. Any Senior officer who has favorable attitude towards mental health is based on their personal understanding and education on mental health. Such officers are very few. It doesn't matter academics qualifications. I've seen medical doctors who thought patients with bi-polar disorder were pretending. We all need enlightenment on mental health issues.

Let's remember what the World Health Organization said in the 1940s and it still stands:  'There's no health without mental health'.

From a *#PsychotherapistInUniform*.

By: Cherry Nanewortor


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