Bouncing back: how ADHD nearly wrecked an officer’s career and home life

Police Federation Rep Kaj Bartlett is raising awareness of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) after a lifelong struggle with the condition which almost destroyed her life

Kathryn ‘Kaj’ Bartlett, an Inspector with Sussex Police, came close to losing her family and career during a particularly difficult time last year – but has since bounced back and is now sharing her story to encourage police forces to learn about ADHD and provide the right support.

Kaj, now an Equality and Diversity Lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), explained she was always a “stereotypical naughty kid” at school, getting into fights and being disruptive in class. “I wasn’t living up to my potential, despite being described as ‘very bright.’ When I said I wanted to join the police my teachers told me to forget it, saying I didn’t have the right temperament – and to be fair they were right.”

The brain of someone with ADHD doesn’t process the ‘reward chemical’ dopamine in the ‘normal’ way. Someone with the condition constantly seeks interactions and activities which secure the dopamine needed. This can lead to increased risk-taking, impulsiveness, violence and even promiscuity. However, people with ADHD can also thrive in environments which fulfil their dopamine need.

“Operational Policing provides this for me – yet I find it impossible to focus and concentrate on routine tasks, such as report writing and project work,” explained Kaj. “Prior to last year, I had no realisation that I was living with this condition or the significant, overwhelming impact it was having on me.”

Innovative thinking
Despite her troubled start, which she used to think was due to her upbringing, Kaj did become a police officer and quickly impressed her superiors with her creative, innovative thinking, operational focus and drive. “Though I would sometimes get pulled up for not following guidance and policy, I could always justify it and was often commended for doing the right thing overall,” she said.

Kaj Bartlett

Kaj was promoted to Inspector within seven years, but things started to fall apart when her teenage daughter began to get into trouble at school and was at risk of exclusion. Her daughter was exhibiting the same behavioural traits as Kaj at the same age, yet without the same adverse background influences. A physical confrontation with her daughter found Kaj facing an allegation of assault, investigations for gross misconduct and child abuse. By this time, Kaj had formed the belief that she lived with ADHD after concerns were raised about her behaviour in the workplace, and felt unsupported. She knows her employers were trying their best, but due to a lack of awareness of how ADHD affects an individual, the support given was wholly counter-productive.

There was no action taken in relation to the investigations, yet she was deemed to be a ‘danger to the public and colleagues’ and was switched from operational policing to a largely administrative role, where she descended into a spiral of depression and poor mental health. “There were days when I thought I might resign due to the lack of understanding from my employers,” she said.

Reasonable adjustments
Kaj paid for a comprehensive private psychiatric assessment which diagnosed ADHD; armed with a formal diagnosis and a wealth of researched knowledge about ADHD, she was able to fight her way back to an operational role and secure easy reasonable adjustments which work for her and her force. “Society and policing has made great strides with gender, race and age discrimination, but not so much with disability and particularly hidden disability, such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia,” she said. “I went looking for somebody who understood ADHD and policing – there was no-one, so I realised I needed to become that person and to raise that awareness.

“The emergency services offer good careers for people with ADHD who need that ongoing stimulus. They need managers who are understanding and employees who know themselves enough to be able to say ‘yes I can do this – I might need extra help doing that’.”

Through Access to Work, Kaj secured coaching on coping mechanisms for her ADHD and says she can prove how chief constables can save themselves a lot of money in lost staff and sick days by a more progressive approach to neurodiversity.

Zac Mader is a PFEW Board member who chairs the Police Association Strategic Leads (PASL) group, which brings together police support groups and the Federation. He welcomes efforts to raise awareness of the effects of ADHD. “It is essential we are better able to understand ADHD and how it affects our members, as only then can we provide the support and understanding that is required to make a difference to our colleagues,” he said. “I am really grateful to Kaj for her bravery and honesty in sharing her story, and for her part in the ongoing work to ensure that ADHD and other conditions do not hold officers back from achieving their full potential.”

John Nelson, Chair of the National Police Autism Association, added: “Officers and staff with ADHD, autism and other neurodivergent conditions process information differently compared to the majority of the population – they often excel at particular disciplines but can struggle in certain roles and environments.

“The private sector has realised the benefits of matching neurodiverse staff to roles for which they are suited, and the police service should do likewise; our ‘one size fits all’ culture is outdated and doesn’t tap into the potential of our most valuable resource.” ∎

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 edition of “Police” magazine published by the Police Federation of England & Wales

“Believe in yourself and support others”

Essex Police T/Inspector Ben Forbes talks about his challenges and achievements as a dyslexic officer

I would like to open this blog by saying it is my hope and aim that this snippet of my personal journey will help share some unique insights into the challenges, positives and key people who have supported me throughout this experience.

Ben Forbes

A little bit about me: I was born and raised in East London as an only child. Throughout early years, I didn’t engage with learning as I struggled with the concept of learning altogether. It didn’t matter what support my family or teachers would implement for me – I would disengage, I struggled with the traditional learning methods and this led me to go down the deviance route (a term I now fully understand and appreciate).

My mother fought – and I mean fought – with my school and the local authority to get me assessed to identify if I had a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD). As a deprived working class woman herself, she had no education but she just knew I had something hidden that was preventing me from reaching my full potential.

It was only when I hit Year Nine in secondary school that I was placed in an ‘alternative education programme’, which saw me leave the classroom environment and work in a watersports centre at the Royal Victoria Dock Watersport Centre. I swiftly worked my way up and become a national senior coach in kayak and canoeing, and passing my national assessors’ qualification in powerboating. This was my passion, the purpose I was ever striving to find, and this was my teachable moment that moved me from my deviance path onto a successful, respectful career pathway.

Joining policing
Fast forward eight years and I had joined the Metropolitan Police after two attempts at their National Assessment Centre. At this point, I still had not had any assessment or indication that I had a SpLD, so the first time I failed was due to my English and maths exercises.

I underwent my dedicated initial recruit training at Hendon and subsequently at Bethnal Green regional centre and passed with flying colours on every assessment. I was nominated for best student and came a very close second, the notion of being nominated meant more than the actual award for me!

Four years later, I am a member of Trident in Specialist Operations & Crime Command. I really wanted to branch out to develop myself further as a specialist to holistically understand the complexities around young people and gang association, with a clear ambition to understand what works, what has been done and what is missing to effectively divert, prevent and tackle gang crime as a whole.

I had the resources in Trident to work with some of the best leaders on gang diversion, Jack Rowlands being my manager at the time, now a Chief Inspector in London’s Violence Reduction unit. Jack was not just a boss to me, he was an inspiration, someone who had an idea many years ago and worked to overcome barriers, preconceptions or issues in general of bringing change into policing and succeeded. This programme was Divert, the best custody diversion programme I honestly have ever come across, but that will be for another blog!

The hook: Canterbury Centre for Policing Research Conference
We now enter 2017 and as a fan of engaging on Twitter to better improve our relations with both community groups and professionals, I saw a tweet from Dr Emma Williams who worked at Canterbury Christ Church University, it was titled Evidence Mission Impossible Conference. This interested me and I looked into the promotion of this conference further and then noticed a close friend, mentor and fantastic police leader, then Superintendent Paul Clements, had signed up and put a call for police officers to attend if available to help with their development.

I knew Paul as he was a current MPS Superintendent and I had worked for him on some new and exciting gang prevention and diversion work in Waltham Forest at the time. I remember saying to myself ‘Really? You haven’t even done a GCSE‘, however thanks to some motivational discussions with Paul, I took the leap, signed up and it was the best decision I ever took. For brevity – I attended, was inspired, was supported by guest speakers across policing and academic and as soon as I got home, I wanted to sign up to the in-service policing degree run by Canterbury Christ Church University!

My university journey
The first challenge was finding financial support to undergo this ambition of mine, which was to overcome the barrier of formal education and to achieve something I was never given the opportunity to do at a younger age, an educational qualification.

The timing was just right, and the College of Policing Bursary had just opened. I did not know how to apply for a bursary really as this was not something I had experience with before, so I went with what I knew, spoke from the heart and explained in my own words why I wanted to do this and what I would do if successful. To my sheer amazement, I was awarded funding for this course which I can’t describe the emotions that went through me when I found out. No words will explain how grateful I am for the College of Policing but also the volunteer bursary assessors across policing and academia who read my application and believed in me.

Fast forward a year and I arrived in Canterbury. What a steep learning curve it was travelling home with the information on what was expected from me now I was a university student! I went home motivated but extremely anxious, worried with a general feeling of being overwhelmed. I remember speaking to my incredible Programme Director at the time, Jenny Norman, and she openly asked about my history with education and asked if I had ever been assessed for possible SpLD. I said no due to the sheer cost of around £450-£600 and she mentioned the university offered a support programme funding 70% of the cost of the assessment. I found this amazing and thanks to that support, I was formally diagnosed with dyslexia, a life changing diagnosis for me!

Jenny swiftly celebrated this diagnosis with me and it will stay with me forever. I remember being told, walking into the weekend programme all drained, and Jenny just gave me a big cuddle and said ‘This will be a lifeline for you now Ben, well bloody done for taking the leap’. After a few weeks, Jenny implemented a specific learning plan and adjustments for me and three years later (this year!), I formally graduated with a First-Class BSc in Policing (Hons) – wow!

Key reflections
I would like to round this blog up by providing you with my personal key challenges and the key reflections on what helped me overcome them, which in my humble view, should be reviewed by every leader in policing to support those with a Specific Learning Difficulty:

  • Due to my lack of education, and this can be applied to any situation which has resulted in those not being academically experienced (age, lack of opportunity, disability etc…), I was not familiar with what I call ‘academic speech’. The thus, therefore, references and critical analysis. I had to learn and adjust how I wrote in essays and how I presented my work through the numerous exercises.
  • Academia and Policing need to both understand our barriers, challenges and possible differences, whilst recognising that there are no right or wrongs and in order to be effective and grow as a profession, we both need each other.
  • Time management is my second challenge. I was studying and was mid-way through my degree with a lively family (new born baby), I was also studying for promotion exams, going through the promotion processes, all whilst transferring from the MPS to Essex Police.  So I struggled to find time for everything. Added to this, my dyslexia meant I had to plan well in advance and needed additional time in almost everything due to my study plans.

I went from one force with a good study leave policy to one which unfortunately did not have one. This meant that I had additional stresses, but thanks to being open, speaking to Jenny (Programme Director) and refocusing, I was able to manage this well within time. My plea for the College and certainly Chief Officers is to value external professional development and enable those officers/staff to harness that by suitable study leave policies.

I started writing this piece as a ‘micro-blog’ which then developed into a full blog! However I hope it encourages anyone who has concerns, doubts, worries or interests about engaging in academia.  This should give some hope that it is inclusive.  It will help you grow both in respects of your operational expertise as well as allowing you to grow and develop academically.

Believe in yourself and support others. ∎

This blog was originally written for the College of Policing Academic Support Network – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

Guest Blog: “A different kind of clever”

In this personal account, Ministry of Defence Police Sergeant Dan Harris reflects on his ADHD diagnosis and how his understanding of the condition allowed him to recognise his strengths and achievements

I first started writing this blog based around my experience of ADHD in January 2021. The original draft contained gems of information encased in multiple layers of drivel that would likely reduce the reader to abandonment after a few lines. I felt the article needed to relay my journey in terms of pre- and post-diagnosis and how it impacted on my life during both phases due to the traits. On reading it through, it felt like a monotonous trudge along a barren motorway.

I once spoke to a fellow police service ADHD-er – what struck me about this individual was their extraordinary positivity regarding their condition. In my mind, I remember thinking that we were looking at the condition from two completely different perspectives; and for the briefest of moments, through this dialogue I was able to experience how they completely accepted and embraced each aspect of ADHD lovingly and with no judgement. I momentarily wore their perspective like an item of clothing, hoping it would fit. This was a garment they had spent significant time lovingly weaving, but regrettably I just couldn’t get it to stay in place; it felt wrong and it didn’t conform. I concluded that my colleague’s life experiences had been significantly kinder than mine.

My personal journey into ADHD did not commence until 2018. I am now 45 years of age so its fair to say I have spent a significant portion of my life not knowing I had this condition. Sadly, this is not unusual as ADHD is only really observed (usually by others) when it explodes in what can only be described as uncontrollable behaviour, which more commonly manifests in young male children. It’s a sorry situation when a condition is only treated or noticed when it becomes intolerable, but sadly this lack of understanding is not just confined to ADHD – it’s endemic in most neurodivergent conditions.

Media coverage has most likely perpetuated the stereotyping that exists around ADHD, and if this is the fire then some professionals who are perhaps ill-informed and really ought to know better must surely be the fuel. A significant problem here is that most stereotyped ADHD behaviour appears typical in young males, and since some can mask this behaviour as they grow older, it perpetuates the damaging perception that ADHD is a childhood condition. There are also other negative connotations: many females are either are not as aggressive with the condition – and thus more malleable – or they struggle with the attention deficit element which is again less obvious to spot. But of even more significance is not all males with the condition can be expected to conform to the stereotypical norm either, and their chances of being diagnosed are even more significantly reduced, as is evidenced by both my son and I.

My own diagnosis came about after my son was diagnosed as there were similarities between us. However, my son excelled during his initial schooling and then seemingly fell into a precipice when he had to take responsibility for his own learning on conclusion of secondary education. Sadly, by comparison I struggled with the early part of schooling and whilst I was respectful and well-behaved, I never really achieved much in the initial schooling years. During my personal exploration pre-diagnosis there were elements of ADHD that seemed to resonate with me and an online screening test via the informative Additude website seemed to strongly suggest I might have the condition. At around this time I had informed my line manager of my desire to seek diagnosis and he responded by stating “Why do you want to go and get yourself a label?” I clearly remember the time of day, the room we were stood in and the wave of anger that I managed to stifle as I explained why this was so important to me.

Whilst I was finishing off my first draft of this blog, the above incident was one of many I can recount since diagnosis, and I reflected on childhood more than I have ever done before. I could seldom remember a positive word written by teachers in my school reports, and perhaps even sadder is that my parents cared even less because they had zero expectations of me and had effectively written me off at a young age through comparisons with my three older siblings. Until I started writing this piece, I held great resentment towards them post-diagnosis. However, I had an epiphany that now deeply resonates: I had become everything they believed me to be, and this became deeply ingrained. Comments on my old school reports may strike a chord with some of you; in my day I theorised that teachers must have held rubber stamps to be wielded on those pupils who were somewhat beyond their teaching abilities. I knew they used to talk in the staff room, and I believed they must have shared the same labels and used them every year on my reports. My stamps were: “needs to pay attention”, “easily distracted by others”, “has proven on occasions that he is able, but is simply not trying hard enough”, “nice lad tries hard”, and so on. One teacher once got so frustrated when I expressed concerns over an inability to grasp his teaching that he informed me I would amount to nothing, becoming a person subjected to the ‘mushroom theory’. To my delight he then embellished this further, informing me that I would be locked in a dark room my entire life and fed on excrement (he of course used the somewhat more common word!) This was the first and only time that I learned something in one of his lessons.

I cannot thank the NPAA enough for allowing me to write this blog, as it led to something quite profound happening. When reflecting on my past I began recounting all the self-perceived negative traits of my condition, and then linked them to moments where I had failed in one way or another. I had forgotten about school reports, lack of belief from parents and most (but not all) teachers. I thought about profound moments of failure and directly linked them to my condition – I had done this since diagnosis with more recent failures, so going back further wasn’t too difficult. The defining moment however came in an extremely rare moment of stillness: in my mind, I pondered on why I needed to perceive my condition so negatively. At first, I thought it could be down to my turbulent experience since diagnosis and my battle to have my condition accepted. But in the end, the real reason needed that moment of stillness in order to cut through negative self-perception.

After diagnosis I searched for signs of all the negative traits synonymous with ADHD, and with every passing day I discovered something new, leaving little point in looking too far back in my life. The condition is held in such poor esteem, and some will question its existence even in the face of overwhelming evidence. If you are new to ADHD, can you immediately identify any positive traits of the condition as you read this blog? The poor perceptions and stereotypical views were the perspective that I was judging myself from, and it was from this basis that I was searching for evidence to justify my diagnosis to others. The problem being the more I did it, the more people normalised some of my traits which I made me feel like they were being dismissive and simply added further frustration.

It’s impossible to ignore the negative elements of my condition, especially in challenging environments where there is very little support, but I now know I can now choose how I allow these moments to affect me. I can continue championing the condition whilst educating others, and I can now stop searching for those negative traits and celebrate the positive ones. During my attempts to justify the existence of my condition, others were keen to highlight minor successes as if they were some huge significant achievement, but the reality was these were relatively ordinary in comparison to my neurotypical peers. Colleagues with similar intelligence had easily negotiated these hurdles and beyond, and many had left me behind in my 22 year career including student officers I had trained. My perception was that these minor achievements were being highlighted to qualify my colleagues’ rationale for not needing to support me. Far worse though were the feelings that they were effectively suggesting I had achieved so much for a person with ADHD.

My perception of self has now changed thanks to this blog, and I no longer view it from that old perspective. Writing this piece caused a period of reflection where I suddenly diverted from my old destination in favour of a much shorter and more interesting route. I now know that very few of my neurotypical peers would have been able to overcome the mental barriers I overcame over the years, even if my achievements in doing so were mundane compared to what they achieved. Few will have picked themselves up from continual rejection and displayed an almost superhuman forms of resilience. Better still, I also realised I had a unique set of gifts afforded to me that were gathering dust due to my former misdirected focus. I am learning to weave a garment from my own unique brand of ADHD which fits me perfectly, and if a person can’t accept who I am that says more about them than me.

I will now present my former perspective of my ADHD and follow with a more positive perspective – but first, a common quote which resonates with me: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid”. This is credited to Albert Einstein, whom many have suspected was ADHD.

  1. There are times in my life where I have been left frustrated by my carelessness and this has resulted in failing in some aspirations when competing with other people. ADHD has gifted me with high levels of resilience and taught me how to bounce back from rejection and failure.
  2. I can be terribly messy and leave things lying around. My ADHD creates a phenomenon where items cease to exist until I am reminded of them, and then searching for them can be frustrating and take time. As a coping mechanism I place things in line of site where they are never forgotten – I also habitually place them in the same location, although this can seem messy to others. (See Einstein’s desk for example.) Whilst this niggles my neurotypical colleagues, this simple process highlights my highly adaptable abilities as my differently wired brain finds ways to adapt to its neurotypical foreign environment. I am the fish out of water.
  3. My disorganisation can lead to tasks being missed. I have a superpower of hyperfocus which provides me with boundless energy to keep going until a task is complete and within the deadline. I do sometimes miss deadlines, and I occasionally miss non-critical deadlines in an unsupported environment. However, when there is an urgent task you can rely on my extreme energy levels and hyperfocus to kick and see the task through to completion with seconds to spare.
  4. I can’t prioritise and can only manage one small task at a time. I now realise this was a mis-sold perception that I invested far too much time and belief in. I can in fact multi-task – see above for those critical deadlines! ADHD folk benefit from breaking down tasks into short sprints affording each with a ‘win’ at the end. I had previously been trying to apply neurotypical techniques, and it was this approach that created disastrous results.
  5. I hardly sleep compared to others. Some nights I just can’t stop my brain from its constant internal dialogue, and no matter how hard I try I just don’t seem to get a quality night’s sleep. During these times when others are deep in the land of nod, my brain seeks solutions to problems and it is at these times I have worked through some major issues. Whilst I sleep less, I actually feel no worse for it – in fact on the rare occasions when I am able to sleep, I find my brain is less alert.
  6. I am easily distracted and miss things all the time. How can I possibly take a positive from that? Well it turns out that the attention deficit element of my condition is not a lack of attention, but is actually related to too much attention. ADHD folk lack the chemical dopamine which is the feel-good chemical that motivates neurotypical people to complete tasks. My brain is constantly scanning for things to stimulate the brain. This ability was also essential in prehistoric times as my people were able to constantly scan for dangers. ADHD folk were the pathfinders back in the day. My peripheral vision is constantly scanning, so it comes into its own when driving.

Other positives of my own brand which I know many others share are an unbounding energy and enthusiasm, extreme levels of resilience, and an ability to think outside the box. In fact rather than thinking outside the box I just remove the boxes completely, which can be overwhelming to some of my neurotypical colleagues!

Moving forward, I will learn ways to use my gifts to my advantage: I will recognise that the external environment is structured to cater for the majority and that by making subtle adjustments I can adapt to most environments. For those where I can’t and where there is no support enabling me to thrive, I simply need to remove myself from that location and find a place where my skills will be valued and embraced. I am currently studying a master’s degree in human resource management – I had previously attempted study pre-diagnosis and suffered a spectacular crash, but this time I have appropriate support to help me overcome my disadvantages. If there is one thing I have learnt in the first twelve months its that the human resource is a valuable commodity. When we consider policing, it can be considered the main cog in the machine, and our success depends on it. Failure to maximise the potential of everyone who is a component of that machine could ultimately result in inefficiency, but worse in my eyes is that it overlooks the opportunity to achieve maximum performance and to create a happy and inclusive working environment.

If you are embarking on the same journey of discovery for ADHD or any other neurodivergent condition, my advice is this: don’t be harsh on yourself. Stop viewing the world from a neurotypical vantage point that sees your traits as negatives, and understand that you are different and special. You have unique gifts, and to steal a quote from a colleague, each of us is simply a different kind of clever. So – forget your weaknesses and seek out your strengths. ∎