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PTSD: the service's hidden battlefield

Former officer Nic Castle gives a very personal account of how he has struggled to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder years after leaving his force on a disability pension.

PTSD: the service's hidden battlefield

Date - 25th November 2020
By - Nic Castle
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From the day I joined Lancashire Constabulary in November 1996 I wanted to fight crime. But six years later something happened to me which ended my police career and changed my life forever.

My main focus was drug enforcement. I worked in plain clothes and on the streets as an undercover officer, eventually returning to uniform as a Community Beat Manager.

One day in November 2002 I was tracking down a young man who had escaped arrest during a drugs gang operation I was involved with.

I found out from an informant he was just around the corner and I approached him, oblivious to what was about to happen. As I went to arrest him two others came up behind me and began hitting me over the head with bricks.

Everything started to spin. But all I knew was I had to stay standing. I knew if I went down on the floor, I would never get back up again. The man fled and I ran after him, praying the others wouldn't follow.

After about 100 metres, I collapsed, and awoke surrounded by officers and paramedics. For me it was the moment that opened Pandora's Box.

After I returned to duty the situation only got worse. I was doing admin work and was driving to deliver a package. Next thing I knew the car was surrounded by men, and I recognised some as members of the gang I’d been targeting. They started rocking the vehicle, shouting "We are going to chop your head off and parade it around the streets." The whole incident re-traumatised me.

But I wanted to carry on working and I returned to regular duties.

Too complex for welfare

I was fortunate in that I had a good relationship with the welfare officers because I’d worked undercover. I was quickly referred to a trauma specialist who, after only a few sessions, told me "I can't treat you, it's just too complex for me. I can't deal with it and you need psychiatric support."

PTSD is something that is just lurking there. You feel like you may have moved on but you haven't. And one day it just hits you.

While on my way to work one morning, I drove for about half a mile on the wrong side of the road without realising what I was doing. I’d completely disassociated – a symptom of PTSD in which the sufferer can have an out of body experience and is dangerously unaware of their surroundings.  I turned around, went home and I never worked as a police officer again. I left on a disability pension.

I couldn't pull myself together. The only feeling I had was fear. By this time I was experiencing more flashbacks, and not just relating to the assault. Various experiences I thought I’d processed haunted me day and night. I started to avoid anything that I thought would cause these nightmares or flashbacks and isolate myself from the world around me.

The only option I had left was my GP, who put me on medication and referred me to a psychiatrist. I was put on a waiting list for 12 months and when I was seen I was again told they didn't know what they were dealing with, but not to worry - they would look it up in reference books.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

The only suggestion they came up with was to refer me to a psychologist and I landed on my feet for the first time. The psychologist was ex-special forces in South Africa who had experience with PTSD. The treatment was Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) which helped me live with my illness. I learned a lot about PTSD and the impact it has on your life and what can happen if you are unable to manage it every day. After 12 months, the therapy came to an end, and I didn’t have any more treatment for about 15 years.

But over time my life simply fell apart.

My marriage ended after my wife, who was also a police officer, told me I was not the man she married. My PTSD had changed me.

I then entered into an abusive relationship with another partner that went on for years. I had a ten-year-old daughter who I was struggling to look after and I went to the local authority for help. They didn't accept I had been a victim of abuse and had no knowledge or appreciation of PTSD and the impact it has on individuals and families and my daughter was taken into care.

Help from NARPO

I’ve also lost my driving licence due to disassociating. I’d been introduced to the National Association for Retired Police Officers (NARPO) who were aware I had an assistance dog and brought me a trailer so I could go out using a bicycle and take her with me. This gave me a little freedom so I could do simple things like shopping.

Now I’ve been offered therapy with an NHS Complex Therapy team, which is limited to 12-20 weeks of treatment. I’ve been told I could need two years of therapy due to the complexity of the condition.

It seems there is nowhere for me to go, no one providing the treatment.

Support from the police ended the day I left. I felt I had been injured during my service, but now my suffering in the aftermath was irrelevant. I feel like I was thrown out with the garbage and expected to get on with life. The reality is I feel my life has been destroyed.

I never asked to be assaulted. I did the job because I wanted to help people and I'd go back and do it again if I was well enough. I loved what I did.

The police are providing a service to the public. When they need the help in relation to their mental health, it's brushed to one side. A lot of the help and support available is targeted towards the military. I don't want to knock the military at all, I have the utmost respect for what they do, but what people don't realise is soldiers’ experiences are mostly on the battlefield, often in another country.

Police officers’ battlefields are the streets that we walk down every day. Every time I leave my home I enter an environment similar to the one I was attacked in. This makes day to day life a battle.

People don't see you as a civilian, but they don't see you as being part of the Armed Forces either. You're in this void and the support and treatment that you need just isn’t there. You may not be going out into a warzone, but it's a different sort of trauma to that.

Nicolas Castle

Locking away trauma 

Many in the police still have the attitude 'You'll get over it', and that's the sort of mentality that is instilled in you: get on with it, move on.

When you go home after your shift, you believe you've dealt with it, but you haven't. The problem comes out when you’ve left the police, or you’ve moved on in your career and you're not in the same environment.

But locking trauma away makes it a ticking time bomb.

We don't know why some get PTSD and some don't, but it can affect anyone. During my time undercover, I had mental health assessments regularly, and I was told I was very strong.

Once an officer is identified as being affected by trauma, it is essential that the necessary effective treatment is available. In an organisation such as the police, it’s important trauma is seen as a normal part of the job that needs addressing.

When trauma isn't acknowledged in a meaningful manner and treatment isn't available, you turn to the easiest option. You pick up a bottle and drink, or look at other ways to self-medicate.

If you look at mental health within the police you're opening a can of worms, because there's still very much the outlook that you're weak if you stand up and say you've got a problem. 

It isn't helped by the way the media portrays the image of officers chasing people in cars, jumping over fences - that the job is fun and exciting. When the adverse side effects of policing are hidden away, how do we expect the public to support the need to help us?

The military dealt with this by being open and showing the impact of trauma on individuals; now, the police need to follow the best practice by the military and other emergency services.

I worked closely with fire and rescue, and the approach is entirely different. Trauma is accepted, and people are expected to react in different ways. There are procedures that enable someone to access help without stigma from colleagues. If a person requests help after a traumatic incident, all the team are debriefed. It was part of the daily routine. Being open and transparent is essential when dealing with PTSD.

Just doing mental health assessments is not enough. It’s important to stop and look at how trauma impacts individuals. I have heard time and time again people with PTSD describe feeling numb. It is easy to say we offer help and have open-door policies. You don't necessarily realise there is a problem, and you don’t go looking for help. It’s essential to become proactive when dealing with trauma and remove the stigma. That means talking to officers’ colleagues and family to see if they’ve noticed a difference in their behaviour.

The police don't understand PTSD, currently they only give it lip service.

And we are running out of time given that reported cases are the tip of the iceberg. Major change and investment is required to enable victims of trauma who are both serving and retired to get the help and support they deserve and need.

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