Category Archives: Reblog

A personal view on mental ill-health

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Police Superintendents’ Association Disability Lead Superintendent Paul Burrows reflects on his own mental health journey and provides advice and insight on supporting those in the workplace who may need help

The adage that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is powerful and poignant.

Supt Paul Burrows

We hear so much in the media about those who are taking a break from sport, the arts or just life in general to reflect upon their mental wellbeing. Having recently been on this journey I thought there might be some beneficial insights I could provide to those who are perhaps fortunate enough not to have been such a traveller. Or perhaps validation to those who have like me, travelled. I am stronger but changed. I now, for example, have a new definition of ‘good friend’ – it is someone who looked out for me and helped me realise they cared and that people cared about me. Perhaps these words will engender more good friends?

I have no doubt that there may be some cynicism about wellbeing breaks. They can come across as being ‘de rigueur’. However, through lived experience I can vouch for the importance of looking after one’s mental health before you get to crises. This wellbeing MOT is critical. But how do you realise you need to do this? Are you failing to sleep? Being incredibly tired at work, or even falling asleep? Are you irritable and having arguments – usually at home? Suffering from palpitations? Light-headed? Demonstrating road rage? Not taking breaks or your rest days? Always thinking about work, even on holiday?

The reasons I struggled with my own mental health (I really don’t like the term ‘illness’, though someone far cleverer than me will no doubt explain that it is an illness), are many and varied and deeply personal. The underlying factor was burnout, the second was conversations which, because of my own neurodivergence, I failed to contextualise. These were the first dominos.

Also, as a Strategic Firearms Commander (SFC), Advanced Public Order Commander (APOC) and on-call Superintendent, I worked many additional shifts which meant I rarely got the rest I needed. I am not unique. This burnout exacerbated other events and conversations that tipped me over the edge to amongst other things, a marriage breakdown.

You don’t want to get to where I was, so hopefully these few words may halt a slide.

I am the PSA disability reserved representative and have been open about my own autism. Whilst off work sick, I continually asked myself the question of whether I was creating my own self-fulfilling prophecy. The statistics speak for themselves: in the UK, 66% of autistic adults have thought about taking their own lives, and 35% have attempted suicide. Around 1% of people in the UK are autistic, yet 15% of people hospitalised after attempting suicide have an autism diagnosis. If you reflect upon how many of your own team have a diagnosis or consider themselves to be autistic, it might well be worth looking at your long-term sickness figures for anxiety and depression in a different way. I also pose the question: do you know who your team is? Our role as managers is critical – what are we missing that is hiding in plain sight? Do we foster relationships that are genuine and sincere? The number of conversations I have had with neurodivergent colleagues from other Forces would suggest these relationships sometimes still need to be built. Otherwise, individuals are left questioning their own self-worth.

Having been away from work, I am stronger for my experience, but changed; and changed quite fundamentally. It is for this reason that I write about my journey in the hope that it may help someone either by ensuring they or perhaps even you get the support needed.

So, what have I learned?

The first thing is that it must be accepted that you are not well, and that support is required. Unfortunately, the crises can bite you before you consciously accept this fact. Look out for the triggers. I had many but didn’t realise what they were. I was told I looked grey, but this was only said to me when I came back to work. I didn’t take my rest days in lieu (RDILs) after working on-call as I needed to be at that meeting; I didn’t take my 11 hour break between shifts entitlement because I needed to be at work. I constantly checked my emails when off duty. Really?

So, what is the first step?

A good friend of mine who had his own period off sick with ‘stress’ said to me that after accepting I was not well, I also needed to accept that I would never be the same again. Fact. Another friend said that he came to realise before his retirement just how many people in the police service are hanging on to their mental health by their fingernails. Both these individuals were superintendents, so this issue is very real.

My concern is that as we see more and more colleagues getting promoted to senior roles relatively early, and with extended service, they may well be in these ranks for decades. The pressures will only mount and unless the on-call and specialist cadre burden are shared equally there will be too many more who develop lived experience of mental health crises. Teamwork is key, at all levels and in all roles.

Being on the PACE (Custody) and SFC on-call rotas and being a Silver Public Order Commander, I accrued a large number of RDILs. I couldn’t take them and still be at work to do my day job. I was burned out, my life home-life collapsed, and I went off sick.

I’m not unique in the level of stress and demand I was facing. PSA statistics show alarming levels of mental ill-health amongst our members, as do that of Oscar Kilo and other policing organisations. This is also not unique to the superintending ranks. Our colleagues at the Police Federation regularly share evidence of the toll of policing across the workforce.

When you reach burnout, on some days all you can do is set yourself a single task: that may be get out of bed, clean your teeth, or go for a walk. This may be all you can achieve. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘moments for movement’. I thoroughly believe that exercise is critical to mental wellbeing, and if you can encourage the individual to do one thing, it is exercise – outdoors, in the daylight. I don’t mean train for a marathon, it may be as simple as a walk, however slow, around the block – but something in the daylight.

It is also worth having a look at how wellbeing support is presented on your Force website. All people in crises will want is the number to call and in what circumstance, in short sentences. It is simple. They are under stress. Do you need help? Phone this number. It also needs to be clear what level of crises the person you are phoning can support. I was rejected from a number of services because I was, at the time, too ill. There are significant gaps in our service provision, and most of what is offered is lower-end conversation therapy – which is hugely important, but please don’t assume the services available will meet all needs. Also – and I can’t say this enough – the person may need help navigating this journey.

Reach out. I have reflected a lot about my own experience and how I have previously failed friends who were off sick. I thought, “Someone else will speak with them”, “They don’t want to speak to me, there is a named welfare contact and I don’t want to pry”. They are all good reasons to justify not reaching out. However, the person who is struggling will be the arbiter of who they want to speak to. I was truly humbled by the number of people who reached out to me and who made themselves available for a coffee and a chat. This will not be forgotten. As an autistic person, I don’t have a wide circle of friends, in fact I would have said I didn’t really have any friends. I know otherwise now.

So, you have reached out. What should you do? It is all about listening and not necessarily about providing solutions. Being off long-term sick can be isolating and lonely; everyone is different and will have a different number of outside-work social networks to reply upon, but some may have none. Particularly those who live and breathe work. Dare one suggest it, but those who are autistic may be particularly likely to have a limited network of friends to speak to. A single contact at whatever interval your Force requires from the welfare contact may not actually be enough.

Returning to work. I read some years ago about the importance of having someone walk into work with you on that first day back. To meet you in the car park or even away from work and physically walk you to where you work and perhaps sit with you and have a cup of tea whilst you settle in. This was, and is, brilliant advice. I know individuals who have sat in car parks in tears not feeling able to walk into work. These are robust people. Don’t underestimate the thoughts going through the individual’s head, matters that may seem trivial: what will people think of me? Will I be welcomed back? Why do people think I was off sick? It is also worth reflecting on how many hours the person will return to work for in the first instance and what the nature of their duties will be. Did anyone think about turning off their email or recording an out of office reply whilst they were away? How many computer-based training packages are they required to complete? It all adds up and can become overwhelming. The process of re-acclimatisation may take weeks. It will also be exhausting.

My final observation is: have you considered how many of those who are off work on long-term sick leave with anxiety and depression may be undiagnosed (or indeed diagnosed) neurodivergent? There is a considerable body of evidence that indicates that those who are ND are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and seven times more likely to attempt or commit suicide. The view is that 20% of us/our colleagues in the service are ND, so there may well be an additional consideration here to be made. The question I find myself posing a lot is, “Do you know who your team are?” If not, if could be more beneficial than you ever imagined to find out. ∎

This blog was originally published on the PSA website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

‘You can’t have an autistic cop with a gun!’

T/Inspector Gav Skevington

‘You can’t have an autistic cop with a gun.’ Temporary Inspector Gav Skevington has heard it many times before.

Gav is Nottinghamshire Police’s Chief Firearms Instructor. He’s also autistic and is sharing his story for Neurodiversity Celebration Week to help break down barriers, and to support neurodivergent colleagues and those who want to enter policing.

Gav said: “I’m the Chief Firearms Instructor and I’m autistic, so straight away people’s alarm bells go and they say ‘You can’t have an autistic cop with a gun’.

“Well, they’re wrong.

“Exactly the same as neurotypical people, neurodivergent people are fit for roles as long as we’re given the right opportunities and support.”

Gav added: “If it wasn’t for the way my brain works I wouldn’t have been as good an Operational Firearms Commander as I was.

“I can look at problems in a different way.

“There are the positives and negatives of every element of it.

“I can switch off emotion really well, which for a job that’s high risk is brilliant.”

Gav said he always knew he was autistic but it wasn’t until later in life that he was diagnosed.

Describing himself as being ’36 years in denial’, he said it was only when his children displayed signs that he decided to do something.

“I did everything to build a mask around me where I’d fit in and I didn’t have to talk about it,” he said.

“It wasn’t until my own children started to show signs that I had to look in the mirror and say to myself to get it sorted and stop being selfish.

“When I disclosed it to work, I sat in the car park for ages trying to work out how to say it. I looked in my rearview mirror and said ‘I’m Gav and I’ve got autism’. Saying it to myself was a huge step for me.

“I remember going to my own Chief Firearms Instructor and saying ‘This is the diagnosis I’ve got’ and expecting to lose my firearms authorisation. But I didn’t.

“I got overwhelming support, which was brilliant for me.

“The moment that happened was a turning point for me because I could say I’d achieved all of this in the firearms world – I was five years in firearms at that point.

“I’d been an Operational Firearms Commander, a Tactical Rifle Officer, an instructor, and I did that despite, or because of the fact I’m neurodivergent.”

Gav is part of Nottinghamshire Police’s Neurodiversity Working Group. It’s been running for three years.

“It’s chaired by Inspector Nick Wood, who comes from a dyslexia point of view,” Gav said.

“We’ve got Inspector Adam Pace, who comes from the managerial support side. I come from an autism point of view.

“We’re trying to find the best ways we can encourage neurodivergent members of staff to come forward, and provide them the necessary support.

“It’s not just neurodivergent individuals, or people who think they are, or who are going through that process who come to us. We’re getting line managers coming for some advice.

“More people are open and willing to talk about it.

“We want to lead from the front and share those experiences that will break down people’s natural barriers.”

Gav said that more people in the Force were contacting the group for advice, and that it was trying to build a network of support for officers and staff.

“If I go to give a talk, afterwards I’ll have a flurry of emails, which is great,” he said.

“Our group’s concern is that we’re doing this on top of the day job and will have people reaching out to us on the verge of crisis or going through bad times.

“We’re trying to build those mechanisms to show that as a neurodiversity group we’re here to support you, to guide you through a diagnosis process and those sorts of things.

“And it’s then signposting to other services like wellbeing support, EAPs, so that we don’t hold it all. It’s joined up.”

He said that people could also turn to national groups – the National Police Autism Association, the ADHD Alliance, and the Police National Dyslexia Association.

“If people don’t want to talk in their own Force there are those national forums where they can get advice,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for the way my brain works I wouldn’t have been as good an Operational Firearms Commander as I was.”

T/Inspector Gav Skevington

The Nottinghamshire Police’s Neurodiversity Working Group’s work has led to Gav being invited to sit on the College of Policing’s Neurodiversity in Specialist Operations Policing Group.

And he said that policing needed ‘central guidance’ that Forces could draw on and would provide consistency across the service.

“I’ve spoken to Forces who have two people in a room who are the neurodiversity contact on top of their day jobs,” he said.

“We’re lucky here. Yes we do it on top of the day job but there are a number of us who can spread that out.

“Other Forces have huge groups and have conferences and events, and it’s that inconsistency. We need a central drive.

“In Nottinghamshire we have a really good connection with chief officer level. Deputy Chief Constable Steve Cooper welcomes the Neurodiversity Group into a bi-monthly meeting where we talk things through.

“Having that connection to the ‘top corridor’ is really good because you feel listened to and empowered.

“But I think that on a national level we need that input to steer us in the right direction.”

Away from policing, Gav runs a clothing line and writes fiction books, which are about empowering people.

“Over 18 years of policing I spent the first 13 trying to fit in, trying to fit that mould and expectation of what Gav the firearms cop should be,” he said.

“Then there’s the little man inside me saying that’s not me.

“It’s only as I’ve got more confident that I’ve been able to change that.

“The mask still goes on but I am a lot more comfortable with me as a person.

“I’ve had to challenge that, realise my blockers, the biggest one of which is me.

“My fiction books are about characters who have to accept themselves and realise they are their only limit.

“If you internalise it, you’re the one stopping yourself.” ∎

This article was originally published on the Police Federation of England & Wales website as part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

My diagnosis diary (part 3)

by Superintendent Paul Burrows
Disability Lead | Police Superintendents’ Association

As I write this, my third diagnosis blog, I’m still waiting to hear back from the assessment clinic for a date when I can have a chat! Even though I am going private, it’s like I can’t give my money away. Regardless of this minor hiccup, it gives me an opportunity to discuss my upcoming assessment for ADHD. Like my blog on autism, I will make you aware of the questions posed; if nothing else, it will give an insight into the process and how someone like me thinks and acts.

Supt Paul Burrows

The Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale comes in two parts. Part A has six questions covering my behaviours in the last six months. If I score four or more then I should proceed to Part B which has 12 further questions.

The way to score a point on each question varies, though the scale remains the same: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often or Very Often. At the risk of giving the punch line away, I scored six out of six on Part A.

To the questions…

Question 1: How frequently do I struggle wrapping up the final details of a project once the challenging parts have been done? Well, absolutely, always! I love the deep thinking required to understand a project and planning a course through to delivery. But once the hard bits have been done, my interest can wane. I am not a completer finisher. Project end reports and benefits realisation reports are all a struggle. I’ve done the heavy lifting, it is time to pass over to someone with finesse!

Question 2: Do I struggle to get things in order when I complete a task that requires organisation? This would be a very weak yes! I spend a lot of time thinking about a project, but also certainly find myself obsessing over whether I am presenting information in a logical order. My view on what a logical order is, isn’t always the same as others!

Question 3: Whether I struggle remembering appointments or obligations. I absolutely struggle to remember appointments and must use my phone to constantly set diary reminders, even for in an hour’s time. I am not sure if this is down to age or just whether I get lost in a task with my hyper-focus (one of my autism traits). I am however time-obsessed, so the thought of missing something haunts me. I have said on far too many occasions that if I am late, you know something has happened. I have to remind myself all the time of where I am meant to be, but I do not miss obligations – if I say I am going to do something, I will – whatever it takes. I am loyal to a fault and the thought to letting someone down just couldn’t be countenanced.

Question 4: Do I avoid starting projects that require a lot of thought? Yes and no! I tend to map projects out in my head before I start and always start well in time, so am usually well ahead of any timetable. Compared to others do I prevaricate? Probably not. But I do work to a different regimen. If I am set a task, it needs completing yesterday, so even today is too late. I think this is a perverse mash-up between my autistic self and (possible) ADHD self.

Question 5: Do I fidget with my hands or feet when I sit down for a long time? Well in my world, five minutes is a long time, so yes absolutely! This is one of the key learning points I feel both the police service and society as a whole needs to take on board. Sitting in meetings for hours without a break may feel time efficient; however, I would argue it is not time effective. When I run neurodivergence training with colleagues, we will set a timer and break every 25 minutes for five minutes. It is simply amazing how much more engaged everyone is. Why don’t we do this in meetings? The more self-reflective question is, when I chair meetings why don’t I do it? I think the only answer is that I still feel it is not something that is yet widely acceptable.

Further to this is seating position, doodling and leg bouncing. I will always, given the choice, sit at the back of a room or to the edge of a room so I’m not hemmed in. This is so I can twist and turn in my seat as much as I need to without distracting people. Others will displace energy by doodling. I’m not a doodler myself; for many however, doodling is a sign they are paying attention to what is being said, not the opposite. It’s like fidget-spinning: these devices will be deployed to retain focus, not as an indicator that I am not paying attention. My fidget-spinner comes in the form of solitaire. If I’m commanding a football match and I start playing solitaire, it means that I have 100% focus on what is happening operationally, the distraction distracts the distractions – I hope that makes sense.

As to the leg bouncing: the problem many neurodivergent people face is that it is not yet socially acceptable to get up and walk around in meetings, or indeed have meetings that are held outside whilst walking around. Noisy places can also be really calming – it’s like white noise. I have a friend who will hold most of her meetings in coffee shops because this is where she best concentrates. I don’t feel however that we are anywhere near the position yet where this type of activity is seen as being normal.

Question 6, the final question from the initial set: how often do I feel overly active and compelled to do things, as if driven by a motor? I am quite simply metronomic. I must have a purpose each day. I need a list of jobs to do, and I can’t relax until they are done. I can’t abide prevarication – why put off something that needs doing, do it. The thought of spending a day doing nothing frightens me, as does wasting time. Is it easy to live with? No, it isn’t. We are hearing more and more about top achievers who have ADHD – particularly sports people – and my sense is that our understanding of this is only at the tip of the iceberg. It is that drive that ADHD can give you that spurs you on when others may quit.

If I score four or more I should progress to Part B. I scored six, so onward for a further 12 questions. The scale remains the same: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often and Very Often.

Question 7: How often do I make careless mistakes when I work on a boring or difficult paper? I make careless mistakes in interesting and easy work. Though that may be my dyslexia. I must read an email four or five times when I am replying, to make sure I’m covering every point and question in it. I don’t tend to make mistakes of substance, because I have thought through the logic of what I am recording, whether I am recording what I am thinking is sometimes the challenge.

“It is a key learning point that the physical environment is critical if you are to get the best out of those you lead and manage.”

Supt Paul Burrows

Question 8: Do I struggle keeping my attention when doing boring or repetitive work? Yes absolutely. If an email comes in, then that will be answered first. If another more interesting task comes in, then that will be dealt with first. However, the task will always be done in timescale and to the best of my ability – it just might take longer than it should to complete.

Question 9: Do I struggle to pay attention to people when they are speaking to me to me directly? Yes, particularly if I am distracted by something else that is on my mind. This is without doubt one of my greatest failings.

Question 10: How often do I misplace things or have difficulty finding them at home or at work? Well, I don’t know! I live such a minimalist existence with no ornaments, plants, clutter or anything on a surface that it would, in fact, be a tremendous achievement to lose something. Everything has its place and it needs to be there. If it can be thrown away, it will be. This is where my autism overtakes my potential ADHD. By way of example, at home the toaster has to be in a drawer and if it made sense, the kettle would be in there with it. Well, it keeps me calm! It also makes cleaning much simpler.

Question 11: How often am I distracted by activity or noise around me? The best example is that I was seeing a counsellor recently and got fixated on a gap in the wallpaper where it was coming apart. I mentioned this at the end of the session, and they agreed that because I’m autistic they would do something about it. If I hadn’t been, they wouldn’t have! I am constantly distracted by noise and will invariably be the first person to point it out – at which point everyone else starts to notice it. It is a key learning point when managing others that the physical environment is critical if you are to get the best out of those you lead and manage.

Question 12: How often do I leave my seat in meetings or other situations when I am expected to remain seated? I don’t, although I want to in every meeting. The trouble is our etiquette means that we simply don’t do this. Consequently, I’m left squirming on my seat every minute or so, adopting different potions akin to Rodin’s Thinker, trying to expend my excess energy. The trouble is this movement is often seen as me being disinterested. It’s not – I simply can’t sit still. The other position I adopt when typing is sitting at my desk with my trouser legs rolled up. For some reason that calms me – you won’t be surprised to know I live in shorts!

Question 13: How often do I feel restless or fidgety? Constantly, 24/7 – I can’t sit still. My idea of a holiday is constant movement, driving or walking from one place to another. Sitting by the pool or waiting for the next meal is purgatory. In fact, anything other than constant mental stimulation is purgatory, even if that stimulation is the next cow passing the window of the vehicle I’m in.

Question 14: How often do I have difficulty unwinding and relaxing when I have time to myself? Constantly. I’m like a wound spring – I must be tired physically and mentally to be able to even begin to relax. I can’t settle to TV programmes, and will watch even a 20 minute episode of a comedy programme in three or four sittings. It gets worse when I sleep. I always fall asleep easily, but then wake up between six and ten times a night – I know because I have an app that tells me.

Question 15: How often do I find myself talking too much when I’m in social situations? I don’t. Again, this is where my autistic self comes to the fore. Put in front of hundreds of people to give a talk/speech – no problem, in fact I actively enjoy it. Put me on a table or in a room of four or five people that I don’t know, and I clam up. It is why I always sit at the back of a room as it is the best place to be anonymous. I don’t go to parties, Christmas do’s, retirement do’s. I love rugby, but the thought of going to watch an international match sends cold shivers down my spine. Too many people, too little control of my environment. It is one of the great regrets of my existence.

Question 16: When I’m in conversations, do I finish other people’s sentences before they can? Shamefully yes – I get bored too easily, join the dots (not always correctly), and then finish the other’s response. It Is not something I am proud of and do my best not to do it, but it is again one of my greatest flaws.

Question 17: Do I struggle to take my turn when turn-taking is required? Yes, queues do my head in. I am impatient to a fault. I will regularly leave a queue even with two or three people in it because I don’t have the patience to wait. People who get to the till in a shop and don’t have their card ready to pay, drive me to the point of distraction. I spend so much time planning in my head (autism over ADHD) that it drives me potty when others don’t. The flip side and downside of this is that spontaneity at home can be hugely challenging for me. The challenge of highly dynamic public order situations where I have to think on my feet is engaging and something I thrive at, though perhaps because I spend so much time thinking about what I would do in a given circumstance.

Question 18: How often do I interrupt others when they are busy? I would love to, but I don’t. I have learned that this really isn’t socially acceptable, though if someone’s office door is open, I will see this as an invite to speak to them. Otherwise, I will leave well alone.

There is no score threshold for Part B – the assessment awaits!

I hope by listing these questions and my responses, I’m giving an insight into the assessment process, but also into the reactions of someone who may well have ADHD. There will be many of your colleagues who can and will respond similarly – so my challenge to us all, is how do we change our way of doing business so that we can become more inclusive? ∎

This blog was originally published on the PSA website as part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author