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Broken – But not beyond belief

Ahead of Stress Awareness Month, held in April every year, Claire Brine met JOHN SUTHERLAND, a former borough commander with the Metropolitan Police, and heard how the stress of his job led to a mental breakdown

My mental breakdown was eyeballs-on-stalks terrifying

‘IN the space of just a few days, I went from running a London borough to barely being able to run a bath,’ says John Sutherland, a retired chief superintendent in the Metropolitan Police. ‘I had fallen off the edge of the cliff and into the depths of depression. I can only describe it as a thing of raw horror and blind terror.’

In 2013 John was serving as borough commander of Southwark in London, responsible for managing 1,000 police officers and staff, when he suffered a severe mental breakdown. Twenty years of working under intense stress and pressure – in roles such as critical incident commander and hostage negotiator – had finally caught up with him. The job he described as his ‘duty and joy’ brought his world crashing down.

‘My mental breakdown was white-knuckle, eyeballs-on-stalks terrifying,’ John tells me. ‘I was totally floored by it. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, and I felt deeply, deeply scared.

‘I also felt a great deal of shame. I felt the shame of failing, the shame of not being strong enough. I felt ashamed that my colleagues were having to work flat out while I was curled up on the floor at home. I felt the shame of mental illness.’

In February this year, after 25 years of police service, John took early retirement on the grounds of ill health. Despite the difficulties he faced in the later years of his career, he says that his ‘love affair with policing’ did not fade.

He explains: ‘It’s the most extraordinary job you could ever have. I loved almost every single passing minute of it. To be one of the people on the inside of the blue-and-white cordon tape was my privilege.’

John can remember the exact moment when he knew that he wanted to be a police officer. He was 17 years old, standing on Hammersmith Broadway, waiting to catch a bus to school.

‘It was a dull, grey morning, and I was feeling nonplussed about the day ahead,’ he remembers. ‘Then I saw this uniformed PC walking down the other side of the road. When I saw him, something inside me clicked. I thought: “That’s what I want to do.”

‘When I look back on it, I think there were three major things that attracted me to policing. The first was that the police officer I saw was working outside, and I knew that when I left school and got a job, I didn’t want to be stuck in an office all day. Secondly, I was struck by the sense of adventure, because that police officer had probably been in a car chase and locked up burglars. Thirdly, I had a sense that being a police officer was a job that mattered.’

In 1992, John’s ambition was realised, and he joined the Metropolitan Police. He was young, resilient and ready to save the world. 

‘I found being a police officer a brilliant job,’ he says. ‘It was complex and demanding. I enjoyed all the roles I had in my career. I loved being a patrol sergeant. I loved being a firearms commander. I loved being an operations superintendent and a hostage negotiator. My best job was being borough commander.

‘I learnt that to be in the police force is a painful privilege. It’s the duty of an officer to venture into the hurting places. So an extraordinary day for me often meant that something was going terribly wrong for someone else. Good days were when everyone got home alive. The worst days were the ones that ended with people dying. Sometimes I saw shattering things that I will never be able to unsee.’

To help John cope with the assaults, stabbings, suicides and murders that he saw all too frequently as a police officer, he turned to his Christian faith for comfort. Ever since childhood, it had given him a sense of stability.

‘My faith was the foundation stone of my entire existence,’ he says. ‘I saw it as a natural fit with being a police officer. A police officer’s job is to save lives, find the lost, comfort the broken-hearted, protect the vulnerable, confront the dangerous and, in some cases, lay down their life for the sake of another. That’s an extraordinary set of responsibilities.

‘But when I was a younger Christian, my faith was more focused on the Bible rules and regulations and “shoulds”. I had a crippling sense of not quite being good enough. I felt I needed to earn God’s approval. Looking back, I’d say I grew up with more religion than faith.

‘It was only when I became depressed that I learnt about the true meaning of grace. In Blue, the memoir that I have written about my experiences, I describe grace as the rumour that God loves me beyond measure – just as I am. I don’t need to earn it. I believe that even on my worst days, when I am riddled with anxiety, God is right there, with me, in the middle of it.’

As John looks back over his career, he finds it difficult to pinpoint the specific events that led to his mental breakdown. All he can remember is ‘the mist of depression’ gradually coming in – and the moment when things started to go very wrong.

‘On my 43rd birthday, I was at a church service in America with friends when I felt something ping in the back of my head. It was a physical sensation – something just snapped. From then on I knew something wasn’t right, and it was very frightening. 

‘The next day, I flew home. I didn’t go to see a doctor. I thought it was my duty to battle through. But I started to feel worse. At first, I was overwhelmingly exhausted. Then I was struck by a malevolent anxiety, which led to panic attacks in the middle of the night. I had to wake up my wife just so she could hold me and tell me that everything was going to be OK. Lastly, depression set in, and it took a tight hold of me.

‘But I kept on going to work. Then, one day when I was in the control room, a colleague announced that they thought a murder had just taken place. It was the sort of thing I’d heard hundreds of times, but in that split second, it was more than I could bear. I went into my office, closed the door – which I rarely did – and said: I don’t think I can do this any more.’

The next day, John asked a friend to take him to hospital. 

‘Immediately I was referred for emergency counselling and put on medication,’ he says. ‘I just couldn’t carry on. I had no physical energy. The moment I gave my brain and body permission to stop, my world came crashing down.’

John was sent home and spent the next few months resting. He watched television recordings of old cricket matches to pass the time.

‘It was a way of being alert but not being challenged,’ he explains. ‘Funnily enough, I could only face watching the matches where I already knew England had won. My brain and body were so broken that breathing in and out was about as much as I could muster. 

‘In those early days of depression, I just wanted to sleep and not wake up until the pain was over. I was convinced I’d failed as a police officer, a husband and a dad. Living was absolute agony, so I didn’t want to be alive any more.’

Slowly, with the help of regular counselling and daily medication, John’s mental health began to improve. He worked out that certain things helped him to feel better: hot baths, being outside for short periods, hot chocolate, writing down his story.

‘There were three practical things that were crucial to my mending,’ John explains. ‘The first was rest. I had to rest and rest and rest some more. I needed to learn how to rest physically, mentally and emotionally. I had to be kinder to myself.

‘The second practical thing was counselling. For nearly five years now I have been seeing a counsellor, and I will continue to do so for as long as I need that support. She is wonderful at helping to unravel the mysteries of me.

‘Thirdly, I took medication – and I still do. I feel no shame or stigma in doing so.’

In December 2013, seven months after John’s breakdown, he returned to work. No longer able to perform the duties of a borough commander, he was given a part-time, less demanding role at Scotland Yard. 

‘I just couldn’t cope with traumatic events or raised levels of stress any more,’ he explains. ‘A couple of appointments in a day exhausted me, whereas before I was handling seven or eight. I had to learn to go about my work a lot more quietly and gently.’

With the support and encouragement of friends and family, John adapted to his new pace of life and found he was able to manage his work and mental health much more effectively. Now retired, he is coping better still. But there are still difficult days to get through. 

‘The shadow of depression often lingers over me, making me feel less certain of more things than ever before,’ John explains. ‘But, at the same time, going through my breakdown led me to discover this thing called grace. And it is truly amazing. It has taught me that I am loved by God, just as I am, without having to achieve or even do anything. Through his grace, I’m experiencing a peace of heart and mind that passes understanding to a far greater degree than I’ve ever known before. 

‘And, though I’d never want to go through another breakdown or relive what happened five years ago, nothing would persuade me to give up what I’ve learnt as a result of it. In many ways, my breakdown turned out to be the making of me.’ 

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