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