Trevor Laffan: Gardaí support services a vital and welcome part of the job

There is a better understanding these days of the trauma that can be experienced by police officers and others in the emergency services, so says Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
Trevor Laffan: Gardaí support services a vital and welcome part of the job

REACHING OUT: Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said he wants to create a culture where everyone feels supported

I SAW a clip from the RTÉ archives recently that was recorded in 1981 in the garda training centre in Templemore. It’s better known now by the fancy title of the Garda College but back then it wasn’t quite so posh.

Anyway, a few of the garda recruits were being interviewed about why they wanted to be gardaí and how they were enjoying the training.

They all gave similar answers, and the common denominator was a desire to help their communities. I reckon they would have heard the same answers from us if we were asked those questions when I was there in 1979.

When asked about the possibility of facing danger, they said it was just part of the job. They expected to face difficult situations, but they hoped, when that time came, they would be professional and do what needed to be done to protect themselves and their colleagues.

Again, we would probably have said the same.

We were trained in basic self-defence and even though we were only armed with a piece of stick, we were confident we could rely on that training to get us through.

In truth, we gave it little thought because we were young, fit and capable of minding ourselves. We also had the support of a large organisation behind us, and that too gave us confidence.

The training prepared us well for carrying out the regular functions of a police officer. We learned how to investigate traffic accidents, write reports, and prepare files for court. We got the tools we needed to get through the working day and the rest would be picked up from the seasoned guys in the station as we went along.

Our self-defence training concentrated on dealing with physical danger only. In those days, there was no other kind, so no consideration was given to the mental health of members and that was nobody’s fault. It just wasn’t recognised as a potential hazard for gardaí.

It might seem surprising now, given the nature of the profession and what we know today, but that’s just how it was.

There is a better understanding these days of the trauma that can be experienced by police officers and others in the emergency services. These men and women regularly find themselves in situations that could impact their mental health.

Emergency responders routinely attend scenes involving fatal traffic accidents, cot deaths, suicides, murders, and assaults. Occasionally, the same people visit more than one of those events during the same tour of duty and, until recently, that was considered just part and parcel of a day’s work.

In my day, when we had a tough shift, we went to the pub afterwards and had a few pints with our colleagues. We talked about everything except how we were really feeling because if you mentioned being traumatised, you’d never hear the end of it. Better to keep quiet.

I thought things hadn’t changed much since I retired, especially after reading about a survey that was carried out in 2018 on behalf of the Garda Representative Association. It found that more than one in six rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána may have had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and 27% may be described as “walking wounded” in terms of “distress and impairment in their lives as a result of trauma”.

There were many members who felt traumatised as a direct result of what they had to deal with in the course of their work, and they felt there was little understanding and little support available.

That led to a call for garda management to tackle the issue as a matter of urgency and, according to a recent press release by An Garda Siochana, they’ve done just that.

I read on the garda website that more than 5,200 Garda personnel completed a Health Needs Assessment Survey, and the results seem very positive. It found the majority of gardaí believe there is a strong sense of camaraderie in An Garda Siochana. That doesn’t surprise me because that was always the case.

What was encouraging, though, was the range of measures they have already undertaken and the announcement that they plan to continue to support the health and wellbeing of garda personnel. That includes enhancements to the independent 24/7 counselling service and the forthcoming launch of a health and wellbeing app. Psychological supervision and supports have also been put in place for garda personnel.

The survey found that 63% of gardaí occasionally experience trauma at work and 45% experience high or very high stress levels at work.

No surprises there, but it was good to see that 70% of Garda personnel feel they can now speak with a supervisor about something causing upset at work.

Another positive sign is that more than 70% of members of An Garda Síochána are aware of the organisation’s support services, including peer support network, the 24/7 confidential helpline and counselling service, and the vast majority of those who have used these support services are happy with them and would recommend them to a colleague.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said he wants to create a culture where everyone feels supported and can rely on the support services in their time of need. The results have sent a clear message around mental health and trauma and he said one quote in particular captures the unique challenges faced in policing — ‘this is not a normal job with normal stresses’.

“A key objective of our Health & Wellbeing Strategy is to directly challenge and overcome any stigma and bring about the kind of cultural change where seeking help is seen for the strength that it is and not any kind of weakness.”

That’s very positive, and as someone who is regularly critical of garda management, it’s only fair to give credit when it’s due.

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