Phantoms in the police brain

An initiative by Chennai Police to address the mental well-being of police personnel has now been adopted by the Tamil Nadu government as the ‘Magizhchi’ scheme. Eight months into the programme, done in collaboration with renowned psychiatrists, more than 400 city police personnel have been treated, Srikkanth Dhasarathy writes

CHENNAI: Police are the society’s paramedics. Whenever society’s fabric gets bruised, they are the first responders. From everyday civic problems to matrimonial troubles, they are the ones first approached, apart from dealing with criminals of all kinds — chain snatchers, local hoodlums, gangsters, white-collared fraudsters and sometimes, politicians and their own.

For a job which involves a daily onslaught of negative emotions, the mental well-being of the police force has remained an unaddressed issue for years. After all, a government order was passed only in November last year, which allowed the constabulary to avail weekly off.

Around the same time, Chennai police initiated a programme for its personnel, which would see through the problem, instead of just telling them, “you need help”. As many as 1,000 police personnel attached to the city police were found to be struggling with issues like depression, anxiety, and alcohol addiction among others as assessed by an expert team part of the wellness programme three years ago.

Commissioner Shankar Jiwal managed to get a space at Guru Nanak College in Velachery and kicked off the ‘centre for well-being’ for the police, using his discretionary funds. City police tied up with MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation (MSCTRF) and government institutions like Nimhans (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) to chalk out a plan to help the police personnel.

Eight months on, the well-being centre has treated close to 400 police personnel, some of them suicidal. Only two days after she failed a suicide attempt, a lady constable was referred to the centre. Separated from her husband and leaving her four-year-old to grow up with her parents, she was handling her battles alone, in her mind.

After an assessment, she was to stay with a family member, to which she outrightly rejected, as she did not want her family to know of her condition. She did not want to take the medicines prescribed and was bent on taking only alternative medicine.

“These are times when fraternal help is important and the lady is coping well today because her department was there by her side,” said Dr T Prabakar, consultant psychiatrist with MSCTRF.

Dr Prabakar coordinated with the Government Kilpauk Medical College Hospital for the constable to be admitted, but rules mandate that a bystander be present at all times. “The lady did not want her family to know. But, a network of safety and support is necessary at such times. So, we informed the additional commissioner and he ensured that two constables took turns to be at the hospital until she got discharged,” Prabakar told DT Next.

In another instance, a police inspector stayed with a constable in a city police station for two days and supervised his medicine intake, until a bed was allotted for his treatment for alcohol de-addiction. Chennai-based TTK Hospital has extended help to the department by charging less for treating police personnel with addiction issues.

In the past eight months, Dr Prabakar and his team have come across a range of issues among police personnel from high-risk cases of suicidal thoughts to other issues like anxiety, addiction, depression, and anger issues. The first step though was to make the ‘rough and tough’ men and women in khaki shed their preconceived notions.

“There were apprehensions initially because of the stigma attached with mental health treatment. We cannot force treatment on anyone. So, we start with coaxing them slowly through telephone counselling and take over from there. Now, there are group therapy sessions, where the fraternity helps each other,” Dr Prabakar said.

The team first starts with a detailed assessment after interactions with individual personnel and formulates a treatment plan. Those assessed as a suicide risk and high stress because of addiction would be recommended to be taken off active duty and admitted for treatment, while others would slowly be made part of individual and group therapy sessions.

There are now trauma groups, grief groups, and AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) groups, wherein the personnel take the lead in educating their co-workers. Women police personnel deal with entirely different issues than their male counterparts and such group therapy sessions are important to address them, say experts. “Say a mother lost a child and this has induced grief and trauma. As a professional, I know about the illness, but not the experience of being ill,” Dr Prabakar said.

Modern times mean there are modern problems and the team has also come across cases of young policemen addicted to online gambling and losing money, leading to depression. Some come for help with the trauma associated with everyday policing. “A policeman, in his 50s, recalled how he had a difficult time coping with clearing dead bodies off the roads on a daily basis,” said Priya J, psychiatric social worker.

With over 500 personnel on their list still to be assessed and treated, the team at the Centre for Well-being have their task cut out and expects several more to come up seeking help in the coming days. Dr Prabakar said there have been instances of those who found the sessions helpful referred others in the force. For maintaining the social fabric, it is imperative that the police become the first responders to the phantoms in their minds.

Dr T Prabakar (who has three decades of psychiatric practice abroad)

The path to wellbeing

The well-being programme for police personnel was initiated in 2018. Over 30,000 personnel across the State were screened by psychologists over three years

Chennai police took it a step further and as part of its well-being 2.0 programme, has taken it upon itself to help the personnel

The programme also focuses on the anger management of police personnel. “Such sessions are helpful in their interaction with the public,” says Dr Prabakar

Except in cases of safety, no feedback is given about the personnel to the top brass of the city police. Only for those identified with extreme anger issues, it is recommended that for the time being, it may not be best to interact with the public

Lot of constables have told the counsellors that weekly off has made a significant difference in their work and life balance

City police say they have taken steps towards welfare and concern for rank and file, which has helped improve the general well-being, family time, health and work output

‘TN govt should spread Magizhchi across State’

Tamil Nadu government this year announced the ‘Magizhchi’ (happiness) scheme and allotted Rs 53 lakh for the mental well-being treatment of Greater Chennai Police personnel. It is high time the scheme is extended across the state too, as the centre in Chennai has been bombarded with enquiries. A Whatsapp message meant for the awareness of personnel attached to city police asking them to seek help for their issues, spread and since then, there have been enquiries from across the state. D Deepan, project coordinator at the Velachery centre recalled how they got calls from friends and families of police personnel from even as far as Kanniyakumari. “The programme is confined to Chennai police. It should be available all over Tamil Nadu,” said Dr T Prabakar.

Bailing out from alcohol addiction

Chennai policeman Vikram (name changed) says his life has turned upside down in the past four months and he regrets the happiness and time he cost his wife and children because of his alcohol addiction. A third-generation policeman, he was mentally prepared for the stress that comes with police work. “As far as the department is concerned, I am a good policeman. But, for my family, I have not been good. As soon as the duty hours ended, I found myself with the bottle and the addiction worsened in the last six years,” Vikram told DT Next after attending an Alcoholics Anonymous session at the police centre for well-being.

What started as social drinking in his youth put him down a spiral without him even realising it. He used to acknowledge that he was addicted and even thought about quitting, but those thoughts remain fleeting and he used to be back to square one. Efforts of self-restraint proved futile too. “While going to temples, I used to fast for 48 days and be off alcohol. On the 49th day, I will make up for the lost time and there have been instances when I was drunk for four days straight,” Vikram said. According to Vikram, the first month after treatment at the de-addiction centre was the most difficult and his coping mechanism has been to eat to his heart’s content. The upside to his reinvention is the little moments of happiness, which he denied his family for a decade.

“In the last four months, I have visited a cinema theatre more than ten times with my family, in comparison to only three times in 20 years before that. I wake up early, drop my children at school, and cook for them on Sundays. Looking back, I feel bad about how much happiness I have cost my family because of my addiction,” Vikram said. He now takes the lead in group therapy sessions and helps his fellow policemen out and also refers other colleagues to seek help.

How to tackle it: Cop Jiwal on wellbeing 2.0

Enquiry into some of the suicide committed by police enlightened the officers that the police personnel face hardship in coping with work stress and personal problems. With a view to help them, special programmes are being conducted at several places for their let-out and guidance in managing work-life balance.

Special attention was given to alcoholics and those who are introverted and have family issues. Hence, the ‘Wellbeing-2.0’ programme is aimed at de-addiction, family counselling and betterment of health with the help of psychiatrists and psychologists sponsored by Nimhans, TTK Hospital, Adyar

A special training ‘Work-Life Balance’ for women police is being conducted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of every week focusing on developing self-image, self-motivation, happiness, health, optimistic emotions and calmness, managing relationships with ease, facing work with challenges, time management. So far, the training was imparted to 2,280 women police personnel

As it was understood that one of the reasons for work-related stress is a continuous job without break or leave, compulsory weekly off is being given to all police constables and a special app Casual Leave Application ‘CLAPP’ has been introduced to facilitate and monitoring availing of weekly off and casual leave for AR Police personnel as a pilot project

An exclusive health centre ‘Centre For Police Well Being’ was inaugurated at Shaheed Baba Deep Singh Auditorium, Guru Nanak College, Velachery, for the conduct of a wellbeing programme ‘Magizhchi’

With a few young policemen falling prey to online rummy and similar apps, GCP initiated a “financial management workshop” for its personnel to ensure that they do not fall prey to such apps

Further COP/GCP is interacting with the police personnel individually during the birthday greetings programme to know their grievances and resolve them

In continuation of the various welfare schemes being implemented at GCP for the benefit of the police personnel and their families, a career guidance programme to impart knowledge on various higher education avenues to the heirs of police officers and the ministerial staff was organised early this month

— As told to VP Raghu

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