‘Startling’ increase in police absences in Scotland as a result of mental ill health

The Scottish Police Federation has called for better support for officers exposed to traumatic events

31st August 2023 about a 4 minute read
“We are not robots. We deal with people and circumstances that can be horrendous. There is no training that can prepare you for that so we have to make sure we have mechanisms to look after our people who are regularly exposed to this type of incident.” David Threadgold, chair, Scottish Police Federation

In Scotland, police absences caused by mental ill-health have nearly doubled in the eight years from 2015-16 to 2022-23, the Guardian has reported.

The data was revealed through freedom of information (FoI) requests, which show that in an eight-year period, the absences rose from 610 to 1,154, accounting for about 7% of the force.

Absences due to psychological disorders nearly tripled among police staff in the same period, growing from 222 in 2015-16 to 620 in 2022-23.

Publication of the figures coincided with a warning from the Scottish Police Federation that triggers for mental health breakdown and self-harm in overstretched police officers are being routinely missed.

At a meeting of Holyrood’s criminal justice committee in June, Fiona McQueen of the Scottish Police Authority said there was “deep concern” about the level of suicides among officers and staff.

David Threadgold, chair of the Scottish Police Federation, described the suicides as “tragic” and offered his condolences to the families affected, though he said that it was not clear why these individuals killed themselves. Threadgold said it was crucial to understand the reasons behind the rising numbers of absences. “We are missing so many triggers,” he said. “Officers may go for days or weeks without meaningful contact with a supervisor because of the incessant demands of the job, and that has a cumulative effect.”

Threadgold added: “We are not robots. We deal with people and circumstances that can be horrendous. There is no training that can prepare you for that so we have to make sure we have mechanisms to look after our people who are regularly exposed to this type of incident.”

Relentless demands on officers

The relentless demands made of officers, along with a recruitment freeze on support staff reduced officer numbers and a move to online training made it more difficult to provide meaningful support, he said.

Police Scotland said that it had a number of schemes to help support staff with mental ill-health, including a telephone helpline, a peer-to-peer wellbeing champions network, resilience assessments for high-risk roles and sessions with a clinical psychologist for those in crisis.

Threadgold said the feedback he had received from officers was that these schemes “don’t have buy-in and there’s still a stigma in asking for help as well as a lack of opportunity for managers to have preventative conversations with their staff”.

He said the federation was forced to refer officers to charities for support because the provision through existing occupational health was insufficient, which he described as “simply unacceptable”.

Russell Findlay, the Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, told the Guardian that the number of officer and staff suicides in the force’s first decade was “truly heartbreaking”.

He added: “I’ve spoken with friends and families of officers who died from suicide and there is anger about the lack of mental health support, but also at the reluctance by the authorities to acknowledge or discuss the scale of the problem.

“It’s startling to also learn that the combined number of officers and staff absent from duty due to psychological issues has more than doubled in less than a decade.

“These figures confirm what they’ve been saying for years – that they’re under immense and growing pressure, and routinely taking up the slack for other public services. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Alan Speirs, the deputy chief constable, said: “Working in policing is a job like no other and our officers and staff find themselves in situations which can be stressful, traumatic and can have a lasting impact on them. Police Scotland is determined to continue to drive improvements to support our people.”

FCC Insight

The dramatic rise in the incidence of absences caused by mental ill-health among police officers in Scotland is deeply concerning, particularly as it may have been accompanied by a rise in suicides. (Official data on police suicides is not collated.) Policing has always been a tough job, so it’s difficult to know what is behind this sudden rise in mental illness, but the Scottish Police Federation is right to highlight the potential part played by reduced officer numbers and a lack of support in the workplace. We would like to see better collection and analysis of data to explain the rise in mental health-related absences, so that measures can be put in place to tackle them.