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A Forensic Collision Investigator at Staffordshire Police has said how he was left “emotionally numb” by his job after dealing with a string of fatal crashes in a short space of time.
Andy Hogan-Hughes was signed off work at the end of 2019 after one fatal incident left him struggling to cope mentally.
Having joined the force’s Collision Investigation Unit in 2012, he’s now sharing his experiences of a mentally challenging 2020 for Time To Talk Day.
Andy said; “The issues surrounding my mental health began way before but towards the end of 2019, we were really busy as a unit. Due to the way my shifts fell, I found myself dealing with a lot of the fatal and traumatic incidents.
“One day, I remember being at a scene and taking photographs of the deceased and the wreckage and all of a sudden my mind just went. I can only describe it as being similar to when a computer takes on too much and just stops. My colleague could clearly see something was wrong so he took the camera off me and carried on taking the photos whilst I took a breather.
“A week or two later, I was at my mate’s house and I just broke down. I’d been having flashbacks and suicidal thoughts and it just became too much for me. So, he rang my Supervisor and I went straight to Occupational Health – who decided it was best to sign me off sick for about four or five months.
“I went just went numb after that. There was a slight embarrassment at feeling like I’d let my team down. As a man, working for the police, you always feel like you’re meant to be tough and unbreakable, and I just felt I’d let everyone down.
“I had tried to soldier on but that’s the worst thing I did. I knew I was ill for a long time before I actually broke down but I never accepted it until that point.
“One of the doctors said to me that one of the things you need to be a police officer is to be resilient but being resilient was also counterproductive to my health. It was a double edged sword in many ways and it’s not necessarily helped by the perception from those outside policing.
“As police officers, we see things that no person should ever have to see and we do things that no person should ever have to do.
“But, despite this, we’ve had members of the public complain about us queuing for lunch when we should be “out catching criminals” or when we’re tired or whatever but we’re human beings and we work shifts and it’s draining.
“I think sometimes people think we’re almost like robots but that’s not the case. We’re people and when we come home we’re husbands, wives, fathers and mothers and it’s really easy to just look at the uniform but you have to see beyond that and realise your criticism is impacting real people – who have possibly seen things that day that have really impacted them.
“We’re people and we have the same failings as everyone else and face the same issues. So for me, look at us as if we’re people and not just a badge because you never know what an officer has been through or seen that day.”
Having been off work for a short time, the Coronavirus pandemic and the first lockdown hit the country.
Andy said; “When the lockdown came in, it was as very odd time. I was already emotionally numb so part of me didn’t feel the real impact of it. However, the ramifications that came with home schooling my child were really tough.
“In the early stages, I couldn’t deal with a lot of noise or concentrate for long periods of time as it started to really impact my speech. If things got too much I would start to stutter and my mind would fog and I would completely forget what we were talking about – so a lot of the time I just had to go up to bed and remove all that activity from around me.
“The worst part of it all was feeling suicidal and useless. I felt like a failure and an embarrassment but I also really struggled with the physical impact of having poor mental health.
“I’ve mentioned already that my speech went, I couldn’t string a sentence together and I had a glazed look in my eyes. I constantly had a headache and my first day of sick leave I slept for 16 hours because I was so drained, both physically and mentally. The anxiety attacks were bad and you really can underestimate the physical side effects of it all. I’d never want to experience those again.”
Andy said; “The weird thing about it all is that I absolutely love my job despite it being the trigger for my PTSD and illness. I’m fine if it’s managed and I’m very fortunate to have the support that I do so I can carry on in the role.
“For instance, when I was off the Sergeants and some colleagues would come and see me, take me out for a coffee and keep me updated on what was going on. It was just so I felt within the loop and part of the team.
“When I got back I started coming back in gradually. To start with I was doing two hours a day and slowly building my way back to working full time and on shift and that perhaps took six months. I think the slow build up back to normal duties was essential but I think just being at work and feeling useful again was a massive boost for me.
“There were times where a job came in that I couldn’t go to and I felt completely useless but as time went on I learnt I could contribute in many different ways – and that was big.
“I don’t ever want to go back to how I was, where I was just muddling through, but I have been to serious and fatal jobs since I’ve been back and my colleagues have been really supportive in helping me through them.
“I don’t know whether I’ll ever able to fully do the tasks I used to and I won’t know until I try it. It’s just a balance of not rushing it. I’ve got to have a stable foundation before I dive right back at in and do the job I used to.
“I think some people believe it’s a bit like a cut to the finger, where you put a plaster over it and a few weeks later everything’s fine but I think with mental health it’s more of a bit of a slower recovery than that – especially in my case.”
Andy goes on to talk about the importance of accepting he was struggling in the first place.
“Weirdly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me as it allowed me to refocus on what was important and looking after myself.
“I don’t really know how to explain it but had it not happened, the best scenario would have been that I would have slowly plodded on getting worse or I would have done something to myself as I was already on the verge of self-harm.
“I would routinely envisage my own demise and I would wake up in the morning feeling disappointed that I’d woken up because it would have just been so much easier had I just died in my sleep.
“The way I use to describe was that it was a bit like being on a coach trip. You’ve seen enough, you’re bored and you want to get off and that’s almost how I saw life. I’m just so glad I got the help when I did.
“I’ve recently joined Men Unite and that’s really helped me in my recovery. In particular, for men’s mental health it’s vital you’re open and honest and get the help you need. The sooner people begin to do that the better. Honesty is key and it’s important for us older folk to set an example to the younger generations and let them know that it’s okay to not be okay and to not be embarrassed.
“If you see anyone looking tired or disinterested all the time, or complaining about headaches or seeing weight changes then ask if they’re alright.
“You never know what someone else is going through so start a conversation and look out for each other.”