Always a Little Further: Emily’s Story

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Inspector Emily Roberts recently won the Pilgrim Bandits’ Ethos Award for the work she does for Pilgrim Bandits’ Curtis Palmer Programme, an initiative that supports injured Emergency Services personnel and those battling mental health. She first came to know of the Programme after being diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the traumatic experiences she encountered through her work in the Police Force. 

Emily tells her story.

“As a Police Officer with just over 26 years’ service, I have always been in uniform, out on the streets. I always wanted to be in the Police Force and I love my job, but I have had to deal with many of the nastier things of life – dealing with death, suicide and recovering bodies from rail-way lines. At the time I didn’t really think about it, but it was distressing. I would spend a lot of time in blues and twos, rushing around arresting drug dealers, people for assault, burglars, domestic abuse offenders and got job satisfaction by sending them to prison and making people feel safe, but we never really spoke about mental health and the impact of all of this.”

It was her time working on patrol, that brings back some of the most harrowing memories for Emily.

“I would be out breaking up fights and having people threaten me. On one occasion I went to arrest a man that was wanted for a lot of crimes and he had to go back to prison, which he didn’t want to do and he was out of control. We went to his house to try and arrest him and he tried to escape, then he was cornered and when we were trying to handcuff him, he tried to stick a carving knife in my neck, which was really quite scary. He went to prison for six months for trying to assault me to resist arrest. From there, I started having nightmares. As a police officer, I just felt that this is the job, this is what we do, so I never really talked about it, I just carried on. I thought everyone has nightmares in the police and was a bit messed up as a result of their experiences.

“This went on for a long time, many years – I had just ignored it and learnt to live with it. Over this time, I was promoted twice, first to Sergeant and then Inspector, which I’ve been for twelve years. And, I really enjoy being an Inspector as you have influence to look after your team and make a difference for the public.

“However, about four years ago, everything started to unravel. For about nine months, everything just felt like it was going wrong and my nightmares escalated. I felt like I was losing control. I ended up going off work sick, which for me was a big thing. I’m a Police Officer and I’m supposed to be there looking after my team. Eventually, through the NHS and through work, I was diagnosed by a psychologist with PTSD.

Emily has an important message for those in the Police Force – don’t suffer in silence.

“You are not alone, there is help, people just don’t know where to look or know how to ask for it. We now have the Blue Light champions who are police staff that volunteer, they are training to help their colleagues in getting the right help at the right time.

“I never thought I would suffer from PTSD, so now I am keen to help others. We have a responsibility to educate staff and as a Leader I take the responsibility seriously. For me, I thought I was the only one in the Police Force to have PTSD and felt completely alone.

“Pilgrim Bandits’ Police lead, Damien phoned me at home in 2018 and, I’ll never forget it. He asked if I wanted to come along on a joint Pilgrim Bandits military and police training event before they went off on a canoeing expedition in New Zealand.  I immediately felt support and not alone – although I must say, I said no!

“Ten months after his initial phone call, I met Damien and others on the Pilgrim Bandits’ Curtis Palmer Programme at the Skern Activity Centre in Devon to learn to kayak and canoe. I was out of my comfort zone as many of my nightmares had been about drowning. But I was with a close-knit group of people who understood and I joined in. I built my confidence as I took on each challenge, starting with an assault course and then getting out in the water. It was about working together as a team and you fall over and you laugh – you start to get a bond going. In between sessions, people start talking and opening up, people talk naturally about why they are there. People get it and understand it, so you don’t have to explain it. With regards to being on the water, I thought, if I can do this, I can do more.

“I was really pleased to be invited to a six-day and five-night wild camp in Norway. I set about preparing my kit and took on body pump classes to make sure I was strong enough. I did not want to have to worry about the physical aspects, when I knew it would be mentally challenging. About a week before we left, I became scared. Can I manage this? What if I fail? How will I cope without my home comforts? But then the morning came and the minute I left my house excitement set in. After a night at the hotel, briefing, making friends with the gang, packing kit, we were off. There was a feeling of freedom as I placed the first paddle stroke. The views were stunning and I had a big sense of adventure. Canoeing in the fjords is mesmerising and my real world faded and my focus was on my next paddle stroke and laughter. 

The expedition also brought with it a real sense of mindfulness. You find a new you and it helps to re-build confidence that you take back into everyday life. It gives you the ability to build strength of being in the moment, which can be a real struggle for those with PTSD.”

Alongside regular counselling sessions, the Pilgrim Bandits’ Curtis Palmer Programme has helped Emily to gain the confidence she needs to continue her career in the Police Force and now she helps others battling mental health issues.

“I’ve now got a new job as Staff Officer to an Assistant Chief Constable and I’m really enjoying work. At Thames Valley Police, I feel we are very progressive – there’s been a big change in the support now available to Officers. It’s about giving staff the tools of how to recognise that there will be experiences you encounter where you will be scared, but it’s how you calm down and how you manage that. 

“I’m now training to coach others, I’ve done training in Psychology, understanding behaviours. I’ve also done a course on health and safety in the water, so I’m now able to help others to join in these weekends. I’m helping Damien to identify those that need help, doing referrals and working with the force to review how we can support Pilgrim Bandits. The shared understanding with those involved in Pilgrim Bandits’ Curtis Palmer Programme is really quite unique, which is why I’m so passionate about it. PTSD is recoverable. Our aim is to help people with PTSD to become their new best selves.” 

Her advice to others with PTSD who are considering joining the programme?

“Firstly, you’re not alone and you haven’t done anything wrong. Come along to a training weekend, be brave and give it a go. You will enjoy it and you will feel supported.”

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