Police officers, particularly those in specialist roles, are often asked to work miles away from home. Mostly this is for days or a week at a time but, following a major incident or terrorist attack, the situation can change rapidly and sometimes you don’t know exactly when you might see your own house and family again.
During summer 2005, I was working on the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch. I'd been at the Branch for just seven months when four suicide bombers murdered fifty-two people on 7th July.
I was no stranger to working away from home. I'd been investigating organised crime for some years, which had involved frequent stays in different parts of the country and at times international travel. My wife was used to me telling her that I wouldn’t be needing any dinner for the next fortnight. She was used to me asking ‘Where’s the small suitcase?’.
But the night of 6th July 2005 was different. It was to be my last proper night in my own bed for a month; though neither I nor my wife knew it.
My youngest child was just a few weeks old.
Over the next month, I slept fitfully and very sporadically, in various places - including the office and the car - as we tried to investigate what had happened during and leading up to the attacks.
This was complicated even further by the additional attempted bombings which then took place on 21st July.
In amongst all this, I was asked to go and work in Leeds, to investigate where the bombers had come from and who might have helped them. I was told I would be away from home for just one further month...
Staying in hotels being paid for by someone else and working away from home actually seems exciting at first. Nice comfy bed; fresh bed linen; cooked breakfast; time away from the humdrum of normality. What's not to like? I was no longer sleeping on the office floor, it was hardly torture.
But in Leeds, one month turned into two, two months into four... and eight months later I was still living away from home on my own in a soulless hotel room. Time off was restricted to 65 hours every fortnight. I'd get home late Friday night, shattered after working two weeks solidly and I'd have to be back in Leeds by 9.00am the following Monday morning.
It was a 230 mile drive each way.
The relationship with my wife, family and friends suffered immensely and in some cases broke down.
There was simply no time for them.
Dealing with terror, murder, blood, gore, hate, extremism and animosity every single day, day-in-day out - non stop - destroys your soul. It makes you uneasy in the world around you; makes you mistrust others; makes you behave differently. There is no escape from it. You start to view the world around you through different eyes. You start to see people and emotions differently.
I needed help - but I didn't realise it - and there was none to my knowledge on offer. The job was what I'd signed up to do. It was my job. It was what was expected of me.
I was also too afraid to talk about the pressure of trying to get a result. Trying to do what was required of me was having an immense impact on both me and my personal life. But what did I really have to complain about, I’d think to myself - after all, I'd not lost a loved one in the bombings, had I? I wasn’t grieving for my family, was I? I kept reminding myself that they were still safe at home, 230 miles away.
Little did I realise that I’d lived through and absorbed much of the trauma myself - from visiting the harrowing scene of the Number 30 bus bombing in Tavistock Square and through the deeply distressing work I’d done with the victims’ and the bombers’ families and friends. I’d had to experience the horror of the attacks over and over, and re-live those feelings of pain, loss, grief and anger for their own loved ones.
Police officers are just normal people who sometimes find themselves in the middle of the most extraordinary of circumstances. They live in a culture where they are expected to 'get on with it'. I was no different.
Sometimes it's years before we realise how something we’ve experienced during our lives affects us because of the lack of support on offer or because we bury the emotions and try to forget about things.
In times of crisis, the police service demonstrates an incredible ability to respond - but who is catching those officers that, in the most challenging of psychological circumstances, have to work overtime day-after-day, have their rest days cancelled and don’t get to see their newborn babies grow up?
When I look back, I think it's a tragedy that so many police forces never see the damage done to individual officers during major investigations - particularly because it often takes years to manifest itself.
That’s why I welcome the recent announcement by the Police Dependants’ Trust about their new annual fund of £250,000, which has been made available to support the mental health needs of police officers following a major terrorist, or other national, incident.
The National Welfare Contingency Fund will allow all affected officers to have a personalised care plan, with help such as talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapies and counselling following a major incident, whether that be a plane crash, a bomb or a mass shooting, for example.
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