*Main Image – NSW Police Detective Sargent Ashley Bryant tragically took his own life in 2013.
The life of a police officer is fast paced, adrenalin pounding, surprising, humorous, unexpected, and of course, devastating. It is a job that’s filled with adventure and heartache, extreme highs and extreme lows.
When I was younger, the idea of a police officer filled my mind with images of strong, handsome, respectful and honest men. I don’t know why I never thought of women as cops, which is odd considering I became one. My young mind hadn’t quite developed the concept that women can work too despite the fact my mum worked throughout my childhood. I digress, but in my mind, that’s what they looked like.
These days the police are a veritable smorgasbord of all types of men AND women, which certainly deviates from my young naive belief of what a police officer “should” look like.
One of the things I never imagined a police officer looking at, was down the barrel of a gun that they had turned on themselves.
Of the 110 coronial deaths investigated between July 2000 and December 2012 where emergency service personal had died by suicide, police accounted for 62 of these cases. That’s an average of over five NSW cops killed by their own hand, each year.
People forget that police are human beings. They eat, sleep, live, laugh and grieve like the rest of us.
I remember walking in a shopping mall one day while responding to a job with another officer, eating an apple. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and I was starving. A member of the public rang up and complained that they had seen me eating an apple. I kid you not. I took that complaint about as seriously as the apple core I later threw in the bin.
One of my closest friends, a colleague I used to work with, asked me why I hadn’t written anything about the things that happen behind the closed doors, the entrenched nature of the side effects of policing. That was a good question.
I’d seen firsthand the effect mental illness, such as anxiety or PTSD, could have on an officer’s life. The disintegration of marriages, officers becoming incredibly reclusive and socially isolated, many of them turning to drugs and alcohol.
Not because they’re being assholes, but because they simply cannot cope.
I say this with the broad stroke of a brush. I say this in general about the countless men and women from the police service that cannot sleep, eat stop crying or being angry.
PTSD is a real disorder that comes from policing. It is real and the impact is devastating.
Imagine going to the shops and people shunning you because you have a “mental health disorder”. Imagine ceasing to out all together because it really is too hard. You can’t face society, so you start to do all your shopping online. Imagine pulling away from friends and family because they don’t understand, and turning to the bottle.
Because that image of the murdered baby and the battered woman’s face plays over and over again in your mind. Then there’s that time when you had to pick up body parts from all over the railway line after someone decided to throw themselves in front of a train. You become consumed with faces of both the living and dead.
Because the best you can muster is to get out of bed at some stage during the day. Because the best you can do is try to make yourself something to eat. Because the best you can do is try and move from the foetal position to shower and engage with those who love you.
Because it’s hard to explain to relatives and family exactly what you’re feeling when you aren’t even sure yourself.
Because you don’t want your colleagues to think ‘you can’t handle it’, or when the boss rings up to check on you – it’s not really the conversation he wants to have either.
“How are you going?”
“Great thanks, I haven’t showered for three days or gone outside – but I appreciate the check-up.”
And yes, you choose this job. And yes, you choose a job where you will be exposed to this.
But you don’t choose a mental health disorder.
And when you can no longer wear the blue uniform because the disorder has consumed you, you don’t willingly choose to let it go.
For the 62 police officers staring down the barrel of that gun, they simply felt they had no other choice. The all-consuming, life-changing effects of their illness pushed them to the edge.
Police are humans too (And yes, they sometimes do eat apples).
*Jennie Wilson is an Australian Writer, NGO professional and former Police Officer.
Follow her on Twitter @jennieewilson