Police and firefighters contact PTSD support charity following recent traumas

Updated: 

Around 30 police officers and firefighters have been in contact with a charity for support with post-traumatic stress in the wake of major incidents like Grenfell Tower and recent terror attacks.

The figures from PTSD999 come amidst warnings from the charity and staff on the frontline about poor treatment of the condition and other mental health issues in the emergency services.

Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said the welfare of staff was paramount after the Grenfell disaster, while the Metropolitan Police said it had specialist programmes in place after recent high profile events.

Steve White, chairman of the Police Federation, and Sean Starbuck, lead officer for mental health with the Fire Brigades Union, said care was improving but raised concerns over cuts to resources.

Rank and file officers spoke out about a culture of mistrust with managers in both the police and fire service, with staff not coming forward for help due to fears over the impact it could have on their job.

Simon Durance, co-founder of PTSD999, said: "Evidence from blue light services staff and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers suggests the needs for staff suffering from PTSD are not being met.

"Many charities just signpost and actually don't deliver any treatment or diagnosis, and too much money is wasted talking about doing stuff and none spent on doing anything like treatment."

One police officer, who supervises staff that attended the incidents at Manchester, Grenfell Tower and London Bridge, said the Met's response was "a lot of smoke and mirrors when the job isn't actually doing very much."

Many officers were at breaking point given their workload, he said, while most staff did not trust management enough to seek help.

"They were going into flats at Grenfell and seeing families basically huddled together - it just doesn't bear thinking about," he said.

"Some officers feel there's nothing for them, not unless they go to their own GPs and seek help themselves."

The Met is rolling out the trauma risk management (TriM) programme, a specialist programme to treat and prevent PTSD which has been used in the military.

But one officer said TriM was rushed in and was being delivered by "current police officers who have done a one-day training course".

Another Met source said it may work in the military but was "pointless" in the police.

"The police is completely different. Nobody trusts anybody in the police, least of all the management team, because of this constant feeling that people are going to be hung out to dry," he said.

He said there was poor understanding of PTSD among senior officers in the Met and an unwillingness to support those suffering.

He added that unsatisfactory performance orders have been made against officers with PTSD, while he knew of officers being bounced between occupational health and the NHS for treatment.

The Met has recently outsourced its occupational health service, having identified "a number of vulnerabilities and service gaps" from running it in-house.

The Met source said: "Because morale is low, people's mental health is low and they're less likely to bounce back from trauma as they might have been before."

Similar concerns were raised by former firefighter Gary Thornett, who recently retired after 30 years with the London Fire Brigade.

He said: "The culture has changed a lot in recent years but many of the guys are still not getting the help they need.

"It's all done internally and there's a real distrust there about management and the impact it could have on their job.

"People who serve in the military are properly looked after, but that's not the case yet in the fire service."

London Fire Commissioner Ms Cotton said all those involved at Grenfell were spoken to individually by a counsellor before they went off duty, and had access to further counselling when they returned to work.

She added: "Going forward, counsellors are visiting staff this week and carrying out a psychological health check of each individual and identifying further staff who need might support.

"We have an on-call counsellor available to all staff 24/7. The ongoing mental wellbeing of all of my staff will continue to be one of my main priorities."

A spokeswoman for the Met said that 2017 "has seen an unprecedented number of major incidents in succession".

She added: "The large number of incidents has meant drawing upon contingency plans to provide sufficient clinical staff in order to support officers and staff affected directly or indirectly.

"Ongoing support programmes, particularly for Grenfell, are also in the planning and will include an ongoing presence of clinical staff on site for access when needed."

She said the impact of a traumatic event on an officer's mental health "can rarely be predicted and should not be underestimated", and that officers seeking help through occupational health were treated with sensitivity and confidentiality.

Mr White, the Police Federation chairman, said forces had got much better at dealing with officer welfare after major incidents, but was more concerned about PTSD brought on by a "drip, drip, drip" of stressful events.

He also cited a recent £7.5 million of extra funding to help with police officer welfare.

"Some forces are not bad at it, other forces, because of austerity over the past five years, the first thing chief officers have cut is occupational health provision," said Mr White.

"So whilst the £7.5 million announced by the Government is clearly very welcome, we've now got to make sure that's just the start and we continue to build on exactly what is needed by officers and staff."

Both Mr White and Mr Starbuck from the FBU raised concerns about the "macho" culture in both services stopping people coming forward, and "presenteeism" where staff turn up to work when they are not fit to do so.

Mr Starbuck said there were also concerns about cuts to counsellors in London.

The FBU says the number was cut from 14 to two under former London mayor Boris Johnson, though the London Fire Brigade says extra counsellors have been drafted in from the NHS and other fire services after Grenfell.

In trying to improve understanding of PTSD among FBU officials, Mr Starbuck said he repeatedly heard of "pretty horrific stories about how it's been mismanaged".