The issue of mental health has dominated the annual conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), which heard that up to seven sudden deaths, suspected to be suicides, have taken place in the force in little over a year.
Addressing the conference in Carlow, clinical psychologist Eddie Murphy said he conducted an assessment of the various welfare and mental health services in the organisation.
“Your current systems are well-intentioned. I think they are haphazard,” Prof Murphy told delegates. “I think they lack strategy. They are not targeted. I don’t think it’s fit for purpose. I’d give it five out of 10.”
Prof Murphy, who is the resident psychologist on RTÉ’s Operation Transformation and who provides trauma training to Laois Fire Service, said that from counselling gardaí “culture and stigma” are often reasons why members don’t access internal services.
“We do know gardaí are exposed to more work- related stress and have a higher incidence of mental health difficulties,” he said. “We don’t really understand it that well. There is really poor evidence.
“On average you are losing 6-7 colleagues a year in sudden deaths, that’s what you know about. That’s the tip of the iceberg.”
He said some guards might not use peer support and that the external system was a general one and did not provide a tiered response to different levels of risks faced by gardaí, for example those involved in viewing child abuse imagery.
In her address to acting commissioner Dónall Ó Cualáin, AGSI president Antoinette Cunningham said limited resources were having a “catastrophic effect” with fewer sergeants and inspectors carrying out roles, resulting in them doing multiple tasks.
She said there were just over 1,800 sergeants, with 365 eligible to retire, as well as 263 inspectors, with 91 of them eligible for retirement.
“This work overload and extra responsibility brings greater levels of stress, leading to situations where our members feel they cannot cope,” she said.
“We have asked you time and again to analyse properly the amount of tasks that our members are required to do. We have informed you that we cannot cope with the burden of responsibility placed upon us.”
The AGSI president said her members were being asked to conduct performance reviews with “demoralised staff”. Chief superintendent Tony McLoughlin of Garda HR said there were 780 trained peer-support gardaí in the organisation and the number of employee assistance officers would be increased from nine to 16 in the coming months.
He said he had fought for the 24/7 helpline for 10 years. Since it was introduced in June 2016, more than 600 members had used it and there had been 2,400 one-to-one counselling sessions — figures that were on a par with the PSNI.
He said culture and stigma were reasons why some members were “suffering in silence”. Chief Supt McLoughlin said they were running five Mental Health First Aid courses to 100 members as well as a force-wide wellbeing survey.