A deep dive into mental health stigma in the police recruitment process
Have you seen the considered, warm and enticing advertisements from Metropolitan Police recruitment over the last two years? So had I. When Boris Johnson won the majority vote with his party and was elected as prime minster in July 2019, he vowed to meet and produce a quota of 20,000 new police officers. I was excited. For someone like me, looking to change fields from childcare, looking for a vocation, this seemed like an opportune move for those looking to make a difference. I wanted to be a part of ensuring increased fairness in the criminal justice system, to ensure the public feel seen and listened to, and to shatter the disillusionment surrounding police officers around areas such as equality.
Unfortunately, this was so far from my experience. This article follows my harrowing journey and the stigma that I personally faced crossing the no man's land that is the police recruitment process.
With purpose and excitement, I began my application, which itself was straightforward, like almost any other job application, and reasonably quick. The timing between the initial application and the assessment day was merely a matter of months. I was accepted on to the next stage and on reaching the 'day 'one' assessment day I felt prepared, having taken part in a workshop prior to this. I flitted through the various exercises, interviews and meetings with confidence feeling as though, even if I was not selected, it would be catalogued in my search for a new role as a positive experience. There were at least eighteen other candidates and although we did not know each other, a distinct feeling of camaraderie buzzed around the waiting room. It already felt very official – we were escorted in and out to complete our assessments - and this added to the feeling of importance and value, of joining a 'mission'.
I found out I had passed the day one assessment and quickly booked on to the notorious 'day two', a measure of a candidate's health and fitness. I had been dreading that horrendous exercise I thought I'd left behind at school – the 'Bleep Test', however upon arrival, this turned out to be the more trivial part of the day. Having undertaken this comprehensive part of the physical test, I was taken to undergo fingerprinting and DNA sampling – just like on TV.
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The majority of the day was spent in the waiting room with candidates, all apprehensive, awaiting our individual medical examinations, having no idea of when our turn would arrive. I could feel my own nerves knotting my stomach just thinking about it. Everyone was discussing their own approaches to the day including taking up running beforehand, timing themselves, and other strategies. Finally, my name was called, and I followed the receptionist to a private room where there was a nurse waiting. He seemed friendly and we chatted continuously throughout the tests. After completing the auditory and sight tests, I was asked a series of questions, about any physical conditions I may have had.
Then, in what felt like a huge blow to the head, I was questioned about the current state of my mental health. Had I experienced any periods of anxiety or depression? I felt a sour taste in my mouth, a pre-empting feeling of dread and as I answered that I had, but since come off medication and I was feeling well within myself. I felt like I had suddenly stepped into the Twilight Zone. At this point his demeanor changed and I was mechanically handed a form and informed that I would need to fill in a 'psychological questionnaire' detailing my experience to give them a better picture of my mental health.
I examined the form, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. The questions wanted to know how my historic depression affected my daily life at the time. It had been eight months since I had chosen to come off my medication, which I felt had no longer been serving any purpose as I had since made a full recovery. I struggled to remember what my habits had even been like, but I tried to answer as honestly as I could because it now seemed as though my future with the police depended upon me being forthcoming about my past poor mental health.
The nurse warned me to expect another 'chat' with a mental health nurse where additional details would be required. As I surveyed the room, I noted that there were others, too, awaiting further consultation. It felt like we were lambs being led to slaughter, taken in one at a time to be judged by the medical team on very little information or insight into the journey we had been on, leading to the death of our police careers before they had even begun. We had been marked out, exposed, as we were the only ones having to undertake more scrutiny into our mental fitness.
In case you were wondering, my own personal journey with depression had followed the mental health 'tipping point' analogy that was as a result of historic trauma. My job at the time had been emotionally demanding and the third-party clients I interacted with manifested certain aspects of trauma I had experienced historically, first-hand. It was all too much, and I was signed off sick, finding myself unable to separate my work and my personal life, with loss of appetite and I was unable to sleep. In hindsight, I am glad that these issues had finally risen to the surface because I was able to heal from much of what I experienced as a child.
For the first time I had sought professional help, attending the hospital at crisis point. I was prescribed anti-depressants which I found at first caused me to feel numb of all emotion and had a detrimental impact on my sleep. I don't think medication personally helped me, but the support of a private psychiatrist proved to be of great help to me in working through my experiences and feelings. This was the fundamental turning point in the journey, enabling me to let go of the issues that had led to my breakdown. I came out the other side of therapy with a greater sense of self and confidence, and much more resilient.
Meeting the mental health nurse proved to be taxing, with countless accusations about my aptitude. I left the meeting feeling scared and uncertain about what would happen next. I expected to be passed on again to another medical doctor who would decide the outcome of my future with the Met. I provided a letter from my private psychotherapist that backed up my renewed mental wellness and waited for the final deliberation.
A month later, the hammer-blow was dealt. An email delivered the bad news I had feared. The doctor advised that it would be premature for me to undertake the role of PC, 'given the information they had'. I felt humiliated, shamed, distraught, angry, and disappointed. It seemed as though I had been punished for being honest about my previous struggle with depression, and maybe, just maybe, I should have remained quiet, as I imagine many others do. I felt stigmatised by that phase of my life which felt so far removed from me that I struggled to remember specific details about it, even now.
My conversation with the doctor over-the-phone did not alleviate the negativity I felt as, she too, was making this decision based on a snapshot of information. I was understandably very upset, causing my voice to audibly break and yet the doctor showed no empathy but instead spoke to me in such a clinical manner that I felt discarded and that she was pleased to have washed her hands of me. I had put so much on the line, and had taken a temporary job lined up to finish just before the police starting date – I had passed my 'day one' after all and had not expected such a result from a health assessment. I felt to blame for my past and cloaked in shame. The medical doctor advised me that, it being October, I needed to take an (18 Month!) pro-longed period of wellness, and that she would review my situation in March. She claimed that this was the case where medication had been required in an individual's past; later I found some relevant information deep within the recruitment website.
However, though only a small amount of hope lay in front of me, I chose to fix all my efforts on that promise.
In time, November arrived and I sprung back into the process of corresponding with the medical team as I had been instructed to, keen to re-start the process as soon as possible. I had to send over two forms detailing my physical and mental health history which I did without too much thought. I just wanted to complete this agonising and exhausting process once and for all. I was then asked to send over my medical history for the past three years. This felt so invasive, as if with every step, I had to keep churning out the same information, constantly feeling like I wasn't being believed, like an imposter. I had to keep jumping through more and more impossible hoops to prove myself, to prove that I was 'normal' - not one of 'those' people who was mentally unwell.
This really angered me because over the course of this process, and the extended period of wellbeing, I constantly returned to frustration at the fact that mental health is not linear. It's a river that has no set height or width; constantly moving, meandering and relentless. It felt completely misguided of the medical and recruitment team to imply that it was a permanent state. My situation had been historic, but it had also been situational, because at that point I had not had the resilience and coping mechanisms to deal with that job. It had been an extremely emotionally demanding job, with the majority of the team being signed off 'sick' themselves for extended periods. Even discounting this additional context, removing myself from that job and speaking openly about my past traumatic experiences had enabled my full recovery.
Throughout the application process and waiting for results, I had spoken to various family members and friends, keeping them updated frequently at the beginning of my journey or when new developments were abreast, until it just became exhausting and unhelpful to keep having to regurgitate the same unfortunate updates. I stopped responding to messages about the developments of my application or, more often, prepared an automated response where I asked those around me not to question the status of my application. It just became too painful.
You might be wondering whether I am regretful that I applied to the police and went through this ordeal? No - despite the toxic and stigmatising message projected to me, it has caused me to find acceptance in my own struggles and normalise the conversation around mental health. I write this in the hope that others who may have felt judged in the recruitment process or within the police force may realise that there is no shame in mental ill health. The police as an institution seems to hold many archaic attitudes towards mental health and does not seem to be willing to read deep enough into the complexities and nuances of past or current mental ill health and to work with others honest enough to have reported experiencing it. I imagine the nature of the work means that a robust mental health strategy is required, and it would be prudent to extend this to those they look to recruit.
As a society, we shouldn't be showing partiality based on an unrealistic or robotic profile. In all sectors, and particularly in the public sector, we should be looking for real people with real experiences to take on these roles. There are so many valuable skills and personal traits that can be shown by those who have experienced mental ill health such as perseverance, empathy, compassion and many more. I know that if I had been approached by a police officer whilst suffering from mental ill health I would be more comforted knowing they really understood what I was going through. Furthermore, institutions that do not show inclusivity, or recognise the value of a diverse workforce, therein perpetuate the cycle of stigma, oppression and harm. The police should be servants of the public, that reflect the public; the full and diverse society we are.
Understandably, the police cannot permit vulnerable people to merely walk into a metaphorical battlefield and expect them to be ok, but if candidates who have, historically struggled, or continue to struggle, with mental ill health were given on-going supervision, mentorship, or were given access to the tools and in-house support to understand and manage their mental health, the Metropolitan Police would have a richer wealth of experiences.
Mental health stigma prevents people from tapping into their own humanity, their feelings and continues a 'stiff upper lip' approach, which in turn will only exacerbate issues of the individual and stop people from having an emotional literacy. The same modifications that are made for individuals suffering with physical health issues should arguably be prioritised for mental ill health.
Even though I, personally, will not be helped, I am hopeful that upon reflection and with the increased awareness around mental health that the Met will make adjustments for respective candidates and those working in the police will have a louder voice. Providing more transparency and clarity at the beginning of the application process on the Met recruitment website in the eligibility criteria; specifically those taking medication, emphasising that those people will need to have been off medication for 6 months before making applications to the police would result in less people being unnecessarily strung along, only to face the disappointment of their journeys being cut short prematurely. I have always tried to be honest and this experience has made me wonder, had I been dishonest, and withheld information about my mental health struggles, whether I would sailed through the recruitment process? Needless to say, I have come to the conclusion that the fault doesn't lie with me; that honesty, for me, will always be the best policy, and that the police was just the wrong job for me.
 Taken from the publication 'Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England – 2007, Results of a household survey'. NHS Digital.