I was washing my hands obsessively after I saw officer killed... but the police do help those under stress
Amid row over Chief Constable's 'dry your eyes' Tweet, ex-top cop reveals past PTSD
A former senior police officer has revealed how he washed his hands 30 times a day after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when a colleague died in front of him.
Alan McQuillan, a retired Assistant Chief Constable, said it is not just terrorist attacks that can leave officers mentally and psychologically scarred. He revealed he has seen officers suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTSD) after dealing with things like road traffic accidents, child abuse incidents and pornography cases.
He shared his own experience of PTSD for the first time as concerns were raised over the level of support the PSNI provides to officers suffering from the disorder.
He was defending remarks made on Twitter by the Chief Constable to an officer who raised issues about the growing pressures of the job. George Hamilton told the officer to "dry your eyes" and to stop "wallowing in self-pity".
The officer had raised concern that police were having to take on the roles of social worker, paramedic and childminder.
Speaking on BBC Radio's Nolan Show, Mr McQuillan said he believed Mr Hamilton's response had been taken out of context. "Eighty to ninety percent of the job is dealing with issues that are not related to crime. Eighty to ninety percent are the social service type calls. If police don't do it, frankly there isn't anybody who will," he stated.
Mr McQuillan continued: "I've had PTSD in the past and I've the greatest sympathy for any officer who suffers that or suffers an injury on the job.
"The reality is, in any profession you go into, whether it's the casualty department or a social worker, there are stresses and strains and you need to be mentally capable of doing the job you are doing."
He revealed that he had suffered from PTSD after he had been involved in an accident and "there had been a lot of blood".
"One of my officers was killed. For the next number of days I found myself washing my hands 20 or 30 times a day, because my hands had been covered in blood," he explained. "I still get flashbacks from that incident and others I dealt with over 40 or 50 years ago. The issue was this, I knew what it was, I knew it wasn't a mental health problem. The problem is when people do bottle it up."
Mr McQuillan described how he was washing his hands as often as every 10 minutes.
"It was something I was doing subconsciously - I caught myself on, thinking I've washed my hands 15 times this morning, and I knew immediately what it was. I knew it wasn't anything to be frightened of and I knew it was a perfectly normal reaction.
"I dealt with it myself because I had been almost inoculated because of the training I had and the knowledge I had," he said.
Mr McQuillan added: "I have seen police officers dealing with things like road traffic accidents and they have fought to save the life of somebody and it hasn't worked.
"Two to three years later it's still with them that they haven't managed to save that person. Even dealing with child abuse cases. It can all impact on police officers. They are all part of the life of a police officer and the organisation has a duty to support them in that, but it can't take all the risks away. I think the key issue is do the PSNI support them - in my view they do."
However, some officers have claimed they do not believe the support provided is adequate.
One officer said: "There isn't enough help out there. After the (Chief Constable's) Twitter comments officers are going to be even more reluctant to come forward. Will they be told to 'dry your eyes'? It is hard enough for people to speak about mental health issues." Earlier this year, the Police Federation of Northern Ireland became the first policing "union" in the UK to create a fighting fund to help officers suffering from PTSD.
The federation has set aside £1m for rank and file officers who are suffering from PTSD and other psychological illnesses. It includes help for those who are being targeted for terrorist attack.
The federation said PTSD, anxiety and depression were leading to an increase in the number of their members taking sick leave. Mark Lindsay, the federation's chairman in the region, said 37,674 days were lost to mental health problems last year.