A police officer needing to recuperate after a trauma or injury sustained on the job can go to one of two specialist centres, in Goring or Harrogate, but, says McKeever, “these are funded out of contributions that they make themselves. The help given by government and by police forces is nonexistent.” The Police Federation headquarters, he notes, are situated in Leatherhead, Surrey, “and just down the road is Headley Court, where military personnel injured in Afghanistan are treated. It is hard not to be aware of the difference in the level of support supplied by government for that facility.”
Police and soldiers – oranges and apples? In some respects, yes, but both groups head into danger as a public duty in circumstances where the rest of us would immediately and instinctively walk the other way. The military has of late introduced much-improved systems to spot and address post-traumatic stress disorder in troops coming back from war zones. The days of disorientated Vietnam veterans wandering the streets of America are apparently over. So all journeys home from Afghanistan, for instance, feature a “decompression” period in Cyprus. Soldiers are encouraged to report any worrying signs in others and a series of formal interviews and assessments is conducted when they are on home soil.
Fledgling efforts are emerging in some police forces, borrowing military expertise. The TRiM programme (Trauma Risk Management) is one such example. Cumbria Constabulary uses TRiM and it played, the force says, a significant role after Derrick Bird killed 12 people and injured 11 before turning his gun on himself in June 2010. The police officers who had been caught up in Bird’s killing spree and its appalling aftermath were assessed for stress, offered ongoing therapy and counselling, and given training in how to recognise signs of trauma that can take weeks and months to emerge.
The clinical psychologist involved, Vicki Hastings, praises its effectiveness in reducing subsequent levels of staff absence through sickness, and has urged its wider adoption with other forces, but also mentions an initial resistance she encountered in Cumbria. Such a reaction highlights a wider problem with what Dr Nigel Lester describes as “largely male professions with a macho, bravado culture where there is an emphasis on picking yourself up and getting on with things”. A consultant psychiatrist, Lester is clinical director of community mental health services in the London boroughs of Islington and Camden (which offer a special programme for veterans). He worries that police and military personnel can be more reluctant than most to seek help for mental health issues, “because they feel that they are supposed to be a toughie”.
And so they carry on, ignoring the warning signs. In promoting the Blue Lamp Foundation, Pc Rathband became a familiar face in the media. Yet there was always a fragile note in his voice. He spoke of being “impatient” with the slow pace of his rehabilitation, and of suddenly feeling vulnerable as a blind person “and not liking it”.
“He had a capacity to sound OK,” recalls the former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who got to know him through Blue Lamp, “and then suddenly you would hear in his voice the terrible hurt and frustration that he couldn’t be back where he wanted to be and be what he was.”
Even if Pc Rathband was trying to hide it, there were others who spotted that same undercurrent of despair, including his colleagues in Northumbria Police who kept a close eye on him. But it remains unclear how much professional help he was receiving. “As well as post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Dr Lester, “he had been shot in the head, which may have caused lasting brain injuries that may not show themselves for up to a year and can cause changes in behaviour. But often they are not picked up if the emphasis is on trauma.”
In his impatience to get on with his life, applauded by an admiring public, Pc Rathband may simply have been in too much of a hurry. Falklands veteran Simon Weston, who suffered 46 per cent burns in 1982 aboard the Sir Galahad, estimates that it took him at least 10 years to face up to the trauma of his own brush with death. “There is help out there for you, often help in abundance,” he says, “but sometimes it can be hard to take it.” Especially if you are being pressed all the time to provide a good news story.
“In my case,” Weston says, “having so much public support – people still approach me in the street after 30 years – was very helpful in the survival process, but you can do it all too quickly. I had five years in hospital and underwent over 70 operations and that gave me plenty of time to grieve for the person I had been before, to have my suicidal moments, but to go through them in private. Pc Rathband was catapulted into being a public figure so very quickly.
“I was blind for a week after my injury and so I know what it feels like to wake up and not be able to see. It is terrifying. And yet there he was, so soon, finding himself in auditoriums where all he could hear were voices, applause and sympathy. It must have been like hearing fireworks going off but not being able to see them. And that may have made the whole process of adjustment he had to go through much worse.”
Whether individuals get through the inevitable depression or succumb to despair, Weston estimates, ultimately comes down to luck. “I wish I could say something more clinical, that there is an answer for people who find themselves in this situation that could save us all if we spent enough money on it, but I’ve lost enough friends to know that it is all so complex and depends on how each of us as individuals react.
“Some are mentally tough, and others, even if they look and sound as if they are, just aren’t. It’s not easy to distinguish before it is too late.”