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An open letter to officers struggling with PTSD

In May 2021, Sergeant Graeme Porteous walked out the front door of his house with the intention of taking his own life. Exhausted from years of battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Sgt Porteous felt he’d nothing left.
Nine hours later, emergency services, including the WA Police Force, found Sgt Porteous in a drunken stupor, luckily before he’d achieved his objective.
One year on from the darkest day in Sgt Porteous’s life, he’s penned an open letter to Police News, which he hopes will convince his troubled brothers and sisters in blue to get the help he was so reluctant to seek.
Our members are taught to run towards danger, not away from it and the high-pressure environments in which our members work is a major contributory factor to the data we cited in December’s Police News.
Over the past 20 years, the rate of suicide among serving Australian police officers has more than doubled. In the second half of the past decade, the rate of suicide among serving Australian police officers increased significantly more than among their American, British and French counterparts.
At the turn of the century, serving Australian police officers were three times more likely to die in the line of duty than by their own hand. Today, the opposite is true.
Read Sgt Porteous’s open letter and call out for help if you need it.
Hello everyone. My name is Graeme Porteous, and I’m in my 40th year of policing, which includes 31 years on the WA Police Force’s frontline.
The job has changed significantly since I joined in 1982. It was far more regimented back then than it is today. We were told, very early in our careers, to keep what happens at work, at work. We were to tell no one, not even our wives or families. It’s advice I followed religiously for decades.
Back in the old days, alcohol was the preferred method of dealing with stress. I saw many colleagues develop an unhealthy overreliance on alcohol. Marriages were ruined. Work hard, play hard was the catchcry. I wasn’t a big drinker in the 1980s, but that changed over time.
Like you, I’ve enjoyed many postings, both country and metropolitan, in various roles. Like you, I’ve witnessed many unpleasant, confronting and disturbing incidents. More than some. Fewer than others. The deaths of three colleagues as a result of PTSD and two colleagues who lost their lives while on duty haunt me.
I always considered myself to be a resilient person. I was enthusiastic and gregarious in nature. I had a positive outlook on work and life in general. I had a great job, a great wife and three great kids. What else is there?
That all changed sometime around 2000 when I started experiencing odd flashbacks of things long past. Unhelpful memories were being propelled to the forefront of my mind. It would happen at any time of the day or night. Images randomly popped into my head. I couldn’t make sense of it.
 began experiencing night terrors, which woke me regularly, disturbed my sleeping patterns and eventually impacted my general health and well-being. Like many others, I turned to alcohol to help manage my symptoms and deteriorating mental health. Doctor-prescribed medicines followed.
In the early 2000s, lots of people, both inside and outside the WA Police Force, started talking about PTSD. I considered it as a legitimate ailment for defence personnel, but not so much for police officers. Generally speaking, I wasn’t sure I believed in it for coppers.
From my experience, officers suffering from stress-related illnesses were widely viewed with scepticism and adversely judged by colleagues and supervisors, including me.
Upon reflection, I accept I was ignorant of the reality of PTSD.
As my sleep deprivation increased, my mood fluctuated, and my emotional regulation decreased. The cumulative effect was my sick leave increased, my motivation decreased, my outlook on life turned entirely negative, my joyful experiences largely disappeared, and my relationships crumbled.
In 2012, I had my first breakdown, and a WA Police Force psychiatrist diagnosed me with PTSD. Initially, I refused to accept my diagnosis. I tried to shun it. I tried to bury it. I continued trying to manage it with a combination of alcohol and prescription medicines, which by this time included psychiatric pills.
I was a reluctant participant, often refusing to take my medicines because they reminded me how broken I was.
This approach didn’t work out well for me. My mood swings became extreme and common. My lows were terrible. My depression was rampant, and then anxiety kicked in. It was a horrible time.
All the while putting on a fake cheerful face to hide my inner turmoil and despair. I felt embarrassed and ashamed for not being able to beat it. I thought I should be able to beat it. Everyone else wasn’t like this.
I was struggling with emotional dysregulation, exploding at work for no reason, incapable of controlling my outbursts. Often irritable and angry, I viewed myself as a fraud, showing one facade to everyone but in the shadow of that entity, hiding the vulnerable, bewildered and overwhelmed person I’d become.
Self-doubt, self-loathing and self-condemnation were places I frequented.
Ever-present were memories of friends who’d taken their lives because of PTSD and their frustrations at the ever-changing medicines doctors prescribed to stabilise their moods. I was scared I’d end up like them.
To cope, I continued self-medicating with alcohol, which wasn’t good. All the while, my treating psychiatrist was experimenting with my meds to find the right fit. As you’d expect, due to my reluctance to accept I had a problem, my condition worsened, and I became somewhat antisocial.
I preferred my own company because it was easier than pretending to be OK when with others. I became disassociated with life, a passive onlooker, not an active participant. I felt emotionally numb. My relationship with my wife was strained. She felt like she was walking on eggshells around me.
It was as hard on her as it was on me. Probably harder. My anxiety was out of control, and I became hypervigilant. I couldn’t relax. I was tired and fatigued. I couldn’t sleep more than two or three hours in a row.
I was struggling at work. I couldn’t concentrate. My memory was failing me. I was easily confused. I began acting in unsafe ways. My general health was suffering. I was putting on weight and regularly attending emergency departments with high blood pressure. I was neither happy nor healthy.
I was constantly battling embarrassment, shame and guilt. I felt everything was my fault or a product of my failure to self-manage my problems. I should simply get over it, as I was once told. Man up and get over it. I did try, but I couldn’t.
Suicidal ideation was always there. Self-condemnation is an unrelenting and vicious adversary. At times, my struggles felt insurmountable. My negative thoughts and self-doubts were extremely hurtful and fatiguing. I was trapped in a cyclic temporal argument with myself about my sense of self-worth and my right to happiness.
Even though many people surrounded me, I felt isolated, completely alone. My loss of self-esteem. My sense of failure. My personal weakness. It was the continual killing off of my once resilient, emotional spirit, bit by tiny bit. As I was trying desperately to hold it together,
I felt like people who didn’t understand – couldn’t understand – were looking at me like I was crazy. Frankly, it felt like I was going crazy. I had an implacable, insidious and invisible enemy, and it felt like it was slowly breaking me apart from the inside.
My inner struggle was constant and emotionally exhausting. No matter how much I rested, I felt fatigued. My enjoyment of life evaporated, replaced by a shallow sense of surviving, day by day.
My depression manifested itself as anger, frustration and resentment, mainly directed inwards at my inability to beat my demons. I felt fragile and vulnerable.
Last May, I finally fell over. Completely. Totally. I endured a psychiatric meltdown. I could tell it was coming. That rainy afternoon in May, I experienced the most severe bout of depression I’d ever felt, and I yielded. The fight had simply left me. I was done. Defeated.
My strength had disappeared. I wanted it over. I wanted out. It was all too hard.
I was totally exhausted from my prolonged battle against myself. Years upon years of internal torment. I saw no way out of the fatigue, despair and self-hatred. I was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all. I saw no light at the end of any tunnel. I saw no respite. I knew I was loved.
I was surrounded by people who cared for me, but I felt completely and utterly alone. I thought my loved ones would be better off without me and my flaws, so I took a bottle of whisky and some rope into the bush opposite my house. In my absence, my family notified the relevant authorities, and emergency service providers, including the WA Police Force, undertook a largescale search operation. The search crew found me nine hours after I’d left home. Totally inebriated, I was unable to walk unaided. Thankfully, I was still alive. I was lucky.
My excess consumption of alcohol put me in such a state, I couldn’t complete the task I’d set myself. 
Respite in a private mental health facility followed. Differing medicines, psychiatric counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy have helped my personal growth in better managing my health conditions. I’ve reduced my alcohol intake significantly – I’d estimate by about 90% – and I feel much healthier.
My sleeping patterns are more consistent, and my night terrors are less frequent. I still feel fatigued and experience moderate mood swings, but nothing like before. I still don’t like socialising generally, which is something I suspect is due to embarrassment and shame.
I’ve written this open letter because of the amazing and unconditional support I’ve received from loved ones, close personal friends, work colleagues, direct line managers and the WA Police Force as a whole.
I’ll be forever grateful and humbled by the non-judgemental support I’ve received during my recovery. My secret is now out in the open. Strangely, my sense of embarrassment and failure has diminished.
It still pops into my head occasionally, but on the whole, it’s been replaced by a sense of achievement in surviving what could’ve been a catastrophic mistake.
During my recovery, it was excruciating to witness the despair, pain and suffering of my loved ones. I carry with me significant guilt for the pain I inflicted on them. I never want to see anyone else go through the emotional distress the persons closest to me went through.
This letter is meant for anyone battling their own demons. Help is there. You just need to ask for it. You’re not alone. I understand better than most people the reasons why we hesitate in requesting help, but it’s out there for you.
In 2016, The Conversation Australia and New Zealand published a piece by Petra Skeffington, Head of Psychology, Exercise Science, Chiropractic and Counselling at Murdoch University, in which the then Curtin University-based doctor wrote the risk of PTSD in Australian police was as high as 20%, far beyond the 1-3% prevalence expected in the general population. It’s food for thought.
Given my experience, I’d suggest PTSD is actually underreported within the WA Police Force. If there’s anyone out there struggling, silently fighting their own fight, please seek help. There are people you can trust. If all else fails, give me a call or send me an email.
I’m always up for a chat. I know what it is to surrender to overwhelming emotions. Every fight is winnable. You just need the right support.
I’m not saying PTSD is curable. Am I cured? No. But, with help, PTSD is manageable. It’s challenging. It’s confronting. It’s tough. But it’s doable.
A wise man said to me at the recent funeral of a mutual friend, who was also a serving officer, you recover step by step, placing one foot in front of the other. Will I ever stumble again? Possibly, but I derive comfort from knowing I’m not alone and there’s help available.
It’s OK to be human and need help occasionally. What I’ve seen, heard and touched during work hours has, on occasions, confronted, scared and scarred me. The scarring isn’t the danger. The reluctance to seek help when needed is the danger.
It’s OK not to be OK. I know it’s a corny line, but it’s true. I used to treat R U OK? Day with contempt, viewing it as a political tool designed to protect the WA Police Force against civil suits. That mentality is completely wrong.
It’s there to remind everyone that not everyone is OK, and that it costs nothing to be kind. I’m hopeful sharing my story through Police News will encourage others to take the all-important first step of asking for help. Stay safe everyone.
Kindest regards, 
Sergeant Graeme Porteous 
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