Our shameful silence on police suicide

When officers become sick, we discard them and leave them to shattered lives; or worse.

The suffocating silence around suicide in the police force and the lack of support for officers suffering mental trauma amounts to a national scandal, writes William Verity.

If it takes the death of yet another police officer to wake us up to the scandal occurring all around us, his life may not be entirely wasted.

Ashley Bryant was not the last serving or former officer in NSW to take his own life, despite the fact that he only died just before Christmas.

Another officer killed himself in Sydney in January.

In fact, since the last NSW officer - Inspector Bryson Anderson - was killed in the line of duty in December 2012, at least five officers have taken their own lives.

You won't have heard their names, you won't hear them honoured at Police Remembrance Days, and their names are specifically excluded from the National Police Memorial in Canberra.

It's as if their many years of honourable service leading to the ultimate sacrifice never happened.

Ashley Bryant was 44 years old when the "head noises" (as he called them) of post traumatic stress disorder finally pushed him over the edge.

As his widow, Deborah Bryant, relates, it was an act of mercy. He had become so impossible to be around. His cycling through heavy drinking followed by bouts of manic exercise, his anger, his moods, his nightmares.

He killed himself because he believed it was his compassionate act towards his wife and three young children.

Yet before he died, the former detective sergeant made one last call - to 000 - where he broadcast to the world a desperate plea on behalf of the thousands of police in Australia who suffer mental stress.

"I can no longer live with the trauma of it and I want this to go to the coroner," he said.

"There needs to be more, more things put in place for what happens. Listen, for partners, of those that suffer, cause I suffer and so do the partners. And there has to be more done for them.

"Alright, I have no more to say."

We are used to hearing about post traumatic stress in the military, and it was the condition of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s that first formalized the condition in the psychiatric diagnostic manual.

Yet conditions for police can be every bit as traumatic as for soldiers, some would argue worse.

One officer described putting out the washing and seeing a dead body that wasn't there. Or feeding her cat and when the animal looked up at her, it had the face of a murder victim.

Another officer would bang his headboard as he suffered nightmares and he put a hole in the wall. He would relive crime scenes in his sleep, shouting out orders, so his partner learnt more about his work from his nightmares than his conscious self.

All of them contemplate suicide at some point, many of them attempt either violently or over time, often drinking themselves to an early grave or overdosing on their medication.

If you've ever wondered about that semi-comical police jargon used, where a dead man is described as "a deceased male person", ask yourself, why the special language?

Could it be a defence mechanism, a way of distancing yourself from the daily horror, an imperfect shield against impending head noises?

This need to defend oneself may explain why, almost universally, police who fall sick with mental trauma are shunned by colleagues and isolated from any meaningful help from the police bureaucracy.

As one recent widow put it: "When you can't do what you're supposed to do, you're just out and move up and someone else fills your spot. You're just out."

The astonishing fact is that this mental carnage is nothing new. There are many thousands of sick and medically discharged police around Australia, one or more in every suburb. It's been going on for decades.

So why the silence?

One issue is that police forces and unions will not discuss the issue of suicide, arguing that it will only encourage more. As if police officers, who deal with death on a daily basis and carry a Glock pistol on their belt, could be so easily swayed into taking their own lives.

Another issue may be one of money. Police forces may fear a deluge of claims coming their way if there is any suggestion that they have failed in their duty of care.

A third issue is that in this male culture, post traumatic stress is seen - quite understandably - as a contagious disease. If I lower my defences to become empathetic to my colleagues, I become vulnerable to breakdown myself.

Though blame will not save a single life, there is no doubt that the silence and lack of action by police unions is a national scandal.

Can you imagine the CFMEU staying silent - even having a policy to stay silent - if five of its members had died on building sites in NSW alone in the past 14 months? God knows how many more have died in other states.

Or the journalists' union? Even the Health Services Union in the hands of Thompson and Williamson would have done a better job.

The systemic problem here, it seems, is that the NSW Police Association is staffed by serving officers, with the same blind spots as other serving officers.

In addition, there appears to be a game played where they can campaign on behalf of their members, but only within certain parameters. Unlike other relationships between employers and unions, the NSW Police Association and the NSW Police Force are so close as to be a single organisation.

There is no room here to describe the shameful treatment - surveillance, delays, harassment - meted out to sick officers seeking the compensation owed to them after years of paying their insurance premiums.

If you want to hear the full catastrophe, you will need to download "Death In the line of duty" from the ABC Radio National Background Briefing website.

Let's remember, these are men and women who have performed one of the hardest, most selfless jobs in society. And when they become sick, we discard them and leave them to shattered lives or worse.

We all bear a responsibility for that and it's time we did better. The time for silence is over.

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-03/veri...