Supporting police mental wellbeing through COVID-19 and BLM
Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work
From now on, on Mental Health at Work we’ll be focusing more on the experiences of people who have been less represented on our site or are less powerful in society. We’re written more about our thinking here.
In this article, Beckett Frith looks at the challenges faced by the police as public sympathy wanes due to the lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests, and especially considers the impact this has on Black police officers.
Our identities are made up of many intersecting elements. They might include our family histories, our bodies, who we love, or where we live. For some of us, the job we choose might also contribute to our sense of self – but what happens when a role you use to define yourself is suddenly under increased public scrutiny?
Like many professions, policing in the UK has seen dramatic changes due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, while many have been shown widespread support, police officers found themselves the subject of several negative news stories as lockdown began. These often resulted from attempts to enforce confusing government guidelines – for example, headlines about police advising stores not to sell Easter eggs, or criticism of the use of drones to film and shame people walking in the Peak District during lockdown.
Tensions flared further after the killing of George Floyd in the USA by the police in May. Black Lives Matter protests around the country drew attention to cases of police brutality and racism in UK forces. Counter-protesters also clashed with officers – with a man being photographed urinating on a memorial for PC Keith Palmer at one such event.
Media portrayal can shape or provide a perceived justification for public actions.
The impact of months of negative news stories about the police and the diminished public sympathy could be harming the mental health of individual officers, according to’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes Andrew Berrie. He says police can face external social stressors, which originate from the interaction between an officer and members of the general public. “This can include personal verbal attacks, threats, negative comments from members of the public regarding their job performance, work or actions, and might reasonably include negative press coverage and social media engagement in which similar such messages are communicated digitally,” he explains.
“We must also remember that media portrayal can also shape or provide a perceived justification for public actions. In April, there were numerous reports of the public ‘weaponising’ coronavirus against the police by spitting, coughing, biting or threatening to otherwise infect officers on duty.”
Dr Jess Miller is the Director of Research for, and a Research Associate and Principle Investigator at the University of Cambridge. She says that while it’s been difficult to measure exactly the impact of the past few months of police mental health, research suggests anxiety levels have risen.
“There was uncertainty [at the start of the lockdown] as to whether police would need to become public order enforcers when it came to compliance with COVID guidelines,” she says. “And then officers in the UK inherited a backlash against law enforcement as a result of the George Floyd protests. It’s very easy for some groups to slip back into a 1980s view of the police as being the enemy focused on power and enforcement, even if that’s not the case today.”
Black police officers and staff have been branded ‘traitors’
This situation becomes even more complicated when it intersects with other areas of individual officers’ identities. According to research from charity Hope Not Hate released this week, eight out of 10 Black Britons and eight out of 10 Bangladeshi Britons agree with the statement “police are biased against people from my background and ethnic group”.
“The Black community have their own experiences of interactions with the police and consequently many members of the community are distrustful towards the establishment,” Andrew explains. “In numerous news reports this extends to Black police officers and staff being branded ‘traitors’ and subject to slurs from their own community when out on patrol.”
He adds that this can lead officers feeling “stretched in two directions” – caught between their police and home communities, with their job causing strain in relationships with friends and family.
While this may seem challenging, there are things police forces can do to help officers during tough times. Jess says it is important to ensure staff always havewhen they are feeling the impact of the stress and trauma they experience in their roles. “It’s important to develop a common language around mental health and ,” she says. “The days are gone when we were scared of talking about our feelings. We’ve all grown up a bit now.
“I don’t like using the words ‘culture change’ – that can have a sluggish quality to it that I don’t think we can afford right now. But having team leaders and senior officers stand up and share their experiences of trauma, that can help everyone to be more open and start those difficult conversations.”
People need to feel heard, understood, validated and cared for.
And Suzy Reading, a chartered psychologist and wellbeing coach, says compassion within forces is key. “People need to feel heard, understood, validated and cared for,” she explains. “Organisations can provide a safe forum for dialogue, encourage people to reach out for support, and remind them of the means of support available to them. It is also important to give plenty of positive reinforcement for effort and dedication.”
For individual officers who might be feeling overwhelmed, tuning out of the news for a while might help control levels of anxiety, according to Suzy. “While it’s important to stay informed, choose carefully the sources of news you turn to and be mindful of your social media use too,” she suggests. “Reading, listening to or watching negative news stories can create worry and stress, lower energy levels, and affect mood and outlook. It can also impinge on the quality of our.”
“The most important thing is to allow the police to talk,” Jess adds. “And we need to make the effort to listen. That’s the only way we’re going to improve.”
In September, Mind are relaunching their, building on the work of the charity’s wider Blue Light work, delivered between 2015 and 2019. It will aim to support emergency services personnel to navigate the range of support options available to them, and developing a suite of revised information and support resources, working closely with emergency services charities in their development.
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