By Sarah Slater
A Garda support service set up two years ago has received less than 650 calls for help.
The official 24/7 Independent Counselling Service for Garda members, civilian staff and reserves was established in June 2016 and deals with concerns around work and personal issues.
Figures released by the Garda Press Office show that 641 phone calls have been received over the past 22 months, while 564 officers of all rank and other staff members have used the service, with the number of face-to-face meetings totalling 1,672.
There are currently 12,859 officers of all rank and file stationed across the country.
Former Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan established the free and confidential service, which aimed to provide counselling on a wide range of issues including critical incidents, trauma, financial, relationships, bereavement, stress, conflict, and health.
The service, which was delayed on several occasions due to tendering issues and the scandal hitting former suicide support service Console which had been due to provide assistance, was first recommended 16 years ago by An Garda Síochána’s sole voluntary psychologist Mark Reddy.
The current service gives employees immediate support from accredited counsellors over the phone and then, if needed, up to eight face-to-face counselling sessions.
These face-to-face sessions take place in a location within one hour of the employee’s home or place of work.
The Independent Counselling Service is delivered by EAP Consultants/Carecall, which has specialist knowledge of working with policing and security personnel, having worked with the Police Service Northern Ireland, Defence Forces, the Prisons Service, and the Probation Board.
A garda spokesperson said: ”It is anticipated that this (service) will continue to be made available to all staff of An Garda Síochána for the foreseeable future.
The service is financed through public funding.
However, John O’Keeffe a spokesperson for the Garda Representative Authority (GRA) slammed the helpline saying: “… this operates as merely a band-aid solution to a career-long problem.
“Management are failing frontline gardaí at every turn when it comes to their mental health. The GRA wants an immediate occupational stress survey to be commissioned by management for our members.
“Gardaí are simply not afforded the same status as civilians whom may be injured while at work and there needs to be an appreciation that their work is very different from other state workers.
"Psychological and/or social risk assessments are required under Health and Safety legislation. Protect the protectors.”
Mr O’Keeffe added: “Psychological and/or social risk assessments are required under Health and Safety legislation and management are failing frontline gardaí at every turn when it comes to their mental health.
“It is widely acknowledged that there is a massive under-reporting of mental health issues among officers due to possible stigma and labelling and unwillingness to show perceived weakness to colleagues and management.”
Meanwhile, an independent support website, www.gardasupport.ie, which also supports officers, has had well over a thousand disgruntled officers contacting it indicating that they feel the harder they work the more trouble they bring on themselves.
The website run by Mr Reddy, a leading psychologist and psychotherapist, claims gardaí continue to be fearful for their future, are dejected and continue to feel isolated following numerous scandals within the force.
The warning by the GRA is backed by Mr Reddy who explained that he provides therapeutic support and advocacy to officers and support staff in “alarming numbers”.
“The official 24/7 helpline in regards to welfare is not working as I had envisioned it based on what members wanted. It was only meant to be a stop-gap support at night time, weekends and was supposed to operate with all of my recommendations.
“Officers struggle psychologically following such incidents as serious assaults in the line of duty, bullying, racism and in memory of all members no longer with us following taking their lives over the past nearly two decades.
“I have raised the issue of mental health and appropriate supports for the Gardaí since as early as 2002. I’ve written to nearly every respective Garda Commissioner raising these issue and fears for Garda suicide. My fears and concerns remain now in 2018.”