On Christmas Day 2017, the life of a traffic police officer slowly began to unravel after he was injured in a chase. Two years later he had surgery and was told he could no longer do the job he loved. His mental health plummeted, but he found solace in his longtime hobby: photography.
“As a traffic cop I’ve seen things no one should see,” says Det Sgt Colin Shead.
“Now I see things I want everyone to see.”
Here he talks candidly about his mental health and shares some of the images that helped him cope.
“Like a lifeline”
The 51-year-old officer has amassed more than 30 years of service, joining Essex Police’s Road Policing Unit (RPU) in 2010.
“I’ve always wanted to work in traffic, because I wanted to protect people from harm on the roads,” he says.
“When you start out, there’s the big thrill and excitement of flying all over the place – then you get to the serious side – and the fatal crashes.
“You’re first on the scene where someone was killed — you see it firsthand and it takes over.”
After injuring his knee in 2017, he continued to work, fearing losing the job he loved.
But after surgery in March 2019 he was told he could no longer be operational – he would have to take an office job.
“In June of that year, it all came to a head. It was the breaking point,” she says.
“Everything came out – everything I had kept inside.”
Det Sgt Shead was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
His PTSD was the result of a combination of factors: the loss of his role in the traffic police and the traumatic things he had witnessed and experienced while on that job, he says.
“I had intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.
“There was one particular scene of a fatal accident in which a teenager got off his motorcycle, hit a tree and died.
“The boy’s father lived nearby and he came running – he fell to his knees in front of me – and then he just took his son’s helmet and threw it away.”
The scene “played over and over in my head,” she recalls.
He credits his friend and mentor, wildlife photographer Russell Savory, with “saving” him.
Photography and filming became “like a lifeline.”
“When you’re out there, there’s complete focus, you focus on the subject. You can put four or six hours into one subject for just one minute of footage.”
Photography has become more important over the years.
“There is no life outside your lens. There is none. Your focus is on what you are looking at or looking for.”
His grandfather’s death in 2016 was one of the many sticking points he had pushed deep into his mind.
“I was with him in the hospital when he died.
“I was in my uniform – I saw my uniform as something that protected people – but it couldn’t protect him.
“I lost faith in my uniform – it was like a wake-up call that we’re not superheroes.”
Looking back, Det Sgt Shead says his illness was almost inevitable.
“I remember in 2018 hearing about a fatal [accident] on the A12, and just thinking, ‘please, not another’.
“I had to burn my uniform after participating. I couldn’t get the smell of death out of it – from the scene -.
“I thought about putting him to bed, but it was one after another, after another, it was becoming endless.
“I realized my own mortality: driving at high speeds.”
Taking pictures is the complete opposite, she says.
“It’s about sitting and waiting for things – nothing but you, the elements and nature.
“No distractions. Nothing.”
Det Sgt Shead is far from alone as an officer with PTSD.
The Police Federation – which represents over 130,000 rank-and-file officers in the UK – says the number of people suffering from mental health problems has soared.
Data released last month shows 13,263 officers were absent due to stress, depression, anxiety or PTSD in the past financial year, up from 8,450 a year earlier, a 57% increase.
“One in five officers suffers from PTSD and the vast majority have suffered a traumatic incident at some point during their career that undoubtedly significantly impacts their mental health,” says the federation’s welfare chief, Sue Honeywill.
The numbers are likely to be higher since the figures do not include civilian police personnel such as crime scene investigators.
Essex Police say providing support to their staff is “a responsibility we take very seriously”.
Its Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) professionals provide help to officers and staff following a traumatic event and identify those who may be at risk.
Managers, the force says, are trained to identify when an officer or staff member might need help, and an occupational health team and employee assistance program give access to support, counseling and other services.
Officers and staff returning to work after a period of absence are supported through recovery duties and by ensuring that reasonable adjustments are in place so that their working environment reflects their needs.
Figures for Essex Police at the end of March this year show 180 staff were on recovery duty and 211 in adapted roles.
After surgery in 2019, Det Sgt Shead took time off.
It gave him, he says, “time to reflect, to stop and think and relax.”
“The trigger came during this time,” he says.
“On June 15, 2019, I found myself shivering, holding on to the bathroom sink, looking in the mirror and thinking ‘this is not good.'”
Essex Police’s counseling and welfare team stepped in and he was diagnosed with PTSD.
“I went through a period of counseling and therapy and medication. It was really painful for me.”
He had six months off work.
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“I was told it was classic PTSD and in a way it was a relief to have it labeled.
“I was running out and I didn’t realize it.”
To be told that he could no longer function as an operational traffic police officer came as a shock.
“My world fell apart,” she says. “I didn’t sign up to be behind a desk.
“This took what I thought was the career of a lifetime away from me.
“My mind says I would do it in a heartbeat [roads policing] again, but, to be honest, that’s it.
For the past three years she has held an office position working with the investigation team on the case dealing with everything from road rage to theft.
“I like what I do. I learned a lot in those six months off – that you have to take care of yourself, or you’re of no use to anyone.
“I think I’m being honest with myself now.”
So how is life now?
Det Sgt Shead appealed restrictions placed on him by the force’s medical adviser which took him off operational work.
He was successful and went on to pass his professional fitness test.
In September of this year it was deployed to Operation London Bridge, on duty as the Queen’s coffin was carried from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster.
“Knowing that I could go back out there if I wanted to, made a huge difference,” she says.
“But I’m happy – genuinely happy – and mentally I’m fine.”
Going around with his camera played a big part in that.
“If you’re willing to wait, eventually everything will fall into place when it comes to wildlife.
“It may take a few years, but you’ll get there eventually.”
Talking about one of his photographs of the sun rising over the sea at Dovercourt, taken in April, he says: ‘One thing Russell [Savory] taught me is that if you want to get that shot, you have to get up early.
“Some days I get up at 0300 to photograph the sunrise or photograph the beavers.
“Life is short, the day is long. Make the most of it while you can.”
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