Helen Barnett: Living with PTSD

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Retired Police Constable, Helen Barnett grew up in a quiet little village in the Cotswolds and, looking for an adventure, joined the MET Police cadets at the age of eighteen. She embarked upon a career that she had a deep passion for, but it was also one of danger. 

Helen talks to us about her terrifying experiences serving in the Police, which include being stabbed three times, being caught in an IRA bomb explosion and being shot in the leg. It was these events that led to her diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She also discusses the life-changing support she has gained from organisations such as Pilgrim Bandits’ Curtis Palmer Programme and how she is now focussing her efforts on helping others that have been through similar experiences. 

Joining the Police Force

“I was really sporty at school and I’m an outdoors type of person. I also liked helping people. So, I saw an advert for the Cadets and though it looked amazing – a year of adventure training. It seemed like a great way to get into the police. I spent a year in the Cadets, before going on to training school and passing out as top student, amazingly.”

“It was the beginning of 1986, and just after the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham, that I went on to a busy station in the middle of London. I worked with a lot of people that had been on duty with a PC who was stabbed to death during the riots. It was a steep learning curve for someone from a little Cotswold village to jump into that environment. It brought home to me the realities of the job and I had to learn really fast. It was all very different from the adventures of training. One of the first jobs I went to was a man who had hung himself. I was only nineteen and I saw the horrors of what can go on. It was the normality of the job – what we had to try and get used to.”

Attacked on duty

“There are three traumatic events that I talk about when discussing the incidents that led to my PTSD. The first happened in 1991. I was stabbed along with three other Officers – there were four of us who were stabbed ten times in total by a mental health patient in the street. We had accepted a call that we thought was just going to routine. Somebody was causing a disturbance in the main shopping area of Wood Green. We answered the call with another car with two female officers in. I parked the van up and could see the man, but he had his back to me. I crossed the road and approached him in a friendly manner, asking what he had been up to and as I did, he swung round and stabbed me in the stomach, sending me flying backwards to the floor. I could see him attacking my friend, it was a frenzy of violence. I got back up to try and stop him and within a blink of an eye he had stabbed me twice more and I couldn’t get back up after that. My white shirt turned to red, it was pretty horrific really. I had a young son who was ten months old at the time, so I lay on the pavement trying not to die.”

“I was totally incapacitated. That was the first time I remember feeling terrified. I was 25 and had previously felt invincible. I was really physically fit and strong, I did a lot of weight-lifting and I hadn’t been frightened of much. That was a life-changing incident really. And there was no concept at that time of mental health at all. It just wasn’t on the radar, it’s nobody’s fault, but it just wasn’t. In fact, stress would have been seen as a sign of weakness.” 

Managing stress 

“Thankfully, we all survived and John, who I was on duty with during the attack, did a lot of research and worked to bring in Officer Safety Manual. It brought in body armour and batons and training for these situations. So, it did change policing really forever that incident. But for me, I had to deal with what had happened. I had a few months off, physically recovering, and then went back to recuperative duties in the office for a few weeks before getting back onto shift work and patrolling and doing the job that I was doing before. 

“I wanted to carry on, as far as I was concerned, I had signed up for a 30-year-long career. It wasn’t something that I would have considered giving up. I always trained a lot – getting physically fit and I loved those feel-good endorphins from training and the job, but it was all very stressful. It was levels of stress upon stress upon stress. It took its toll at home. At work, I remember not long after, there was a woman with a knife and four of us surrounding this woman, rugby tackling her. I just got on with it, but afterwards I had that real sense of ‘crikey, here we go again’. So, it didn’t change how I dealt with people, but I had changed. 

“Another stand-out incident was in 1993 we got a call about IRA bombs that had been planted at the same shopping centre and we got caught up in the explosions from the bombs. Though I wasn’t physically hurt, I was knocked off my feet and it was another extreme traumatic experience. Then a year after that, I joined the ARVs (Armed Response Vehicles) and at that point, I was the first ever mum to join, it had just been opened up to women. It was Boxing Day 1994 and we had a suspect with a baby daughter with him in a pushchair and we were called to help out the police in Enfield.

“The suspect was barricaded in a flat. Myself and my colleague went to the doorway to have a look with the plan being we would then all go back armed and get himself to give himself up and resolve the situation. But as we were walking back to a nearby side street, he followed us. I hadn’t had a chance to put my body armour on and he pulled his gun out from his coat, it all happened so quickly. He put the gun in his mouth, then as we were running for him, he outstretched his arm and shot me through the knee.”

Finding a new sense of purpose

“This was the final straw for me really. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1996, which was really unusual then, it was unheard of. I felt like I had been through the mill and how much more as a human being could I take? So, I was medically retired. It was a really difficult decision as it was my career, but I also had to think about my now four-year-old son. I couldn’t take anymore and didn’t want to take any more.

“It was hard though – I felt as if I’d lost my sense of identity leaving ‘the Force’. I felt like an alien. There wasn’t really anyone I could relate to in what I call, ‘the normal world’. It was all kids and mums and playgroups. I carried on fitness training and almost shut the door on it all, closed it all off. I just never spoke about it. It’s a double-edged sword the diagnosis of PTSD because, on the one hand, it makes you feel like you’re not going mad, there’s a reason for how you’re feeling, but it was also a diagnosis that made me feel like I’m pretty worthless. And, that’s how my life went on until just under two years ago. 

“I was asked, at the ripe-old-age of 53, if I’d take part in a deadlifting world record attempt. My son was part of a team of military veterans raising money for Rock-2-Recovery. We broke the record for deadlifting for 24 hours straight and raised around £5,000 for the charity. That event was life-changing for me as I met a guy called Nick Goldsmith, an ex-Marine, who had also been traumatised by his experiences – he was running Woodland Warrior Weekends for military veterans. I thought I wasn’t bad enough really to warrant one of their weekends and thought they’d turn me down, but of course they didn’t. We had an amazing weekend doing bushcraft, wood-carving, cooking, learning about foraging… and talking.”

Pilgrim Bandits’ Curtis Palmer Program

“From there I started telling my story on a podcast and through public speaking opportunities. It was because of this I was approached by the Curtis Palmer Program – they’d heard me speaking about my experiences. The Police Lead for the Program invited me on a trip to Snowdonia that he was organising for Police Officers with PTSD and/or injuries.

“It was just a fantastic experience. We climbed three mountains in five days. We also had a survival skills session and learnt dynamic breathing and cold-water immersion techniques that are known to promote both physical and mental health. A highlight was all getting into a freezing cold lake! Over the course of the week, we cooked together, we laughed together and we talked about our experiences. It was lovely to connect with like-minded people with their own stories to tell. 

“I’m now keen to help other, share my experiences and help out on upcoming Curtis Palmer Program trips. It’s fantastic what they are doing for those in the Police Force that have been involved in such traumatic experiences. 

Helping others with PTSD

The ethos of the Curtis Palmer Program is that it’s part of the healing process for individuals to help other people too. I’ve now done my mental health first aider course, so that I can go back in more of a helping role. It goes full circle as you can help others that are going through what you have been through.

“The Curtis Palmer Program and Hidden Valley Bushcraft, which I’m also Patron for, has given me a sense of purpose back that I lost. My self-worth and confidence have grown. I feel that I can contribute again and that’s just massive for me really. I joined the police to help people and that’s what I’ve missed, now I can do that again. I also have a sense of belonging. I keep in contact with those that were on the Snowdonia trip. I’ve made great friendships with others that are also inspirational in what they’ve been through and what they are now doing.”

“It’s so important to talk about mental health. It’s important to get people together so that they are not isolated and alone. We can all so easily be on that cliff edge, where you can’t go on anymore. It’s so dark and painful, but actually there is light at the end of the tunnel, if you can reach out to others. And the Curtis Palmer Programme is just amazing, I wish I’d had it all those years ago. I’m nearly 55 and I think I would have fared better with re-employment, if I’d have had something like this in place back then. So, it’s fantastic and I want others to learn all about it.”

You can apply for the Curtis Palmer Programme here.

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