Belfast Telegraph

Hidden suffering of past horrors

In the week in which the RUC will be presented with the George Cross by the Queen, Malachi O'Doherty examines the human cost to many former officers - and how they are helped

Years of dealing with violence has resulted in trauma for a fifth of retired police officers

Years of dealing with violence has resulted in trauma for a fifth of retired police officersHUNDREDS of former police officers in Northern Ireland are suffering from shell shock. Some have refused a treatment that is on offer, and others are being treated for depression and alcoholism without their shell shock being noticed.

The technical term for the condition is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a condition in which a person lives with repeated flashbacks of horrific events. New research shows that about a fifth of retired police officers are traumatised, and that more than a third are suffering severe psychological disturbance as a result of the violence they have lived through.

Des Clayton is the director of the Police Retraining and Rehabilitation Trust, set up at the instigation of the Police Federation and Ken Maginnis. The trust established a trauma clinic in October and has dealt with 250 clients already. The clinic and workshops are on the sight of the Maryfield secretariat, beside Palace Barracks in Holywood. It is not run by the RUC, but has a checkpoint and a police guard at the gate. Mr Clayton says: "The numbers involved are horrendous. Our research would indicate that 350 of every 1,000 RUC officers would require intervention in the clinical range. That's a massive number if you think of the numbers who have been through the police since the seventies." He says that retired police officers are coming for therapy to deal with things that happened decades ago. It was only in the late eighties that the RUC established an occupational therapy unit for officers traumatised by violence. Policing culture tended to coax people into just getting on with the job. The theory was that as professionals they could cope, and if they couldn't they could get drunk and pour out their feelings and get over the horror.

A senior officer says: "Don't knock the whiskey bottle. For some it worked." Des Clayton deals with the ones it didn't work for. He says: "We are now seeing officers who have left the job, who were injured 25 years ago, going right back to the early days of the trouble. And indeed, it's not all terrorist and political violence related stuff too. People are injured emotionally by exposure to things like house fires, road accidents, drowning, recovery of bodies, suicides."

The research has been conducted by Dr Michael Patterson who, in own his earlier career as a police officer, survived a rocket attack in 1981 with massive injuries. He lost both arms when an RPG7 hit his vehicle in Andersonstown, during the violence stirred up by the hunger strikes. Dr Patterson says: "Policing is a very macho environment, and people who have been exposed to incidents wouldn't be seen having a good cry." Many police officers find that years later, after retirement, the mental images of the things they have seen return to haunt them. "Many of them would have nightmares and panic attacks as well. If they are sitting watching TV their thoughts drift back and they feel their stomach tightening and occasionally flashback." Dr Patterson's clinic is using a system which he believes can now shorten the length of time that a patient needs to dwell on a painful memory by stimulating both sides of the brain to deal with it. The treatment is called EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. ( It was devised for use with Vietnam veterans and is claimed by those who promote it to be the fastest and most effective treatment for trauma.

Des Clayton says: "I am seeing results that I find absolutely amazing. What I see quite often is somebody whose posture, when they come for the first time, is hunched over, no eye contact, tearful, wringing of hands, no confidence, and just to see that person after one or two sessions, walking straight, and then to hear them on their next visit waving goodbye or saying OK, Des, see you next week. As one man put it, 'You have rebuilt me'." Michael Patterson and the other therapists use the treatment themselves, to "discharge" the stress created by dealing with painful stories from their patients which may awaken their own buried feelings about traumatic events they have lived through. A recent case brought up discussion about bodies torn to shreds by bullets and awakened old memories of Narrow Water in Warrenpoint 20 years ago, where 18 soldiers were killed by bombs and gunfire.

Michael Patterson was one of the first police officers at the scene. He has had nearly 250 patients since the treatment started in October, with a drop-out rate of a fifth. He says that there is a very high rate of shell shock in civilian society, and among former paramilitaries too. "It is what you would expect after 30 years of what this society has been through".

Ironically, the trauma unit for retired and medically discharged RUC members is close to the firing range used by the Army at Palace Barracks, and Dr Patterson has treated shell shocked men at times with loud shooting nearby.

He says: "In this room I had a man working through a session and shots started over at Palace Barracks and he has flashed back to the incident he was involved in. The body was here but the mind was somewhere else." He claims that in a sense the gunfire was helpful. He could judge the progress of a patient's recovery by how he reacted to it.

Belfast Telegraph

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