Stressed SA police turn to helpline

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South African policemen are turning to an anonymous helpline to cope with the stress of tackling one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime which has prompted shoot to kill if needed orders from the president.
President Jacob Zuma, eager to ease nerves in the run-up to next year’s soccer World Cup, has authorised deadly force while saying he is not encouraging a trigger-happy police culture.

An uphill battle to reduce crime before the planet’s most popular sporting event is expected to result in more policemen reaching out to the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG).

The number of calls from police  which average about 40 a month  is increasing, said Cassey Amoore, Manager of Councillors of SADAG, which describes itself as South Africa’s biggest mental health support and advocacy group.

Some policemen suffer from depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after emotional trauma on the job. Others want to give up.
“The worrying thing with police officers is that they have easy access to their firearms. So the first point of contact is to use your firearm to attempt or commit suicide,” Amoore told Reuters in an interview.
“You have to get them crisis intervention as soon as possible, referring them on to a hospital, or a psychiatrist or psychologist as soon as possible.”

Some officers can’t afford private mental health care, with salaries that are low in the best of times. Like millions of South Africans, they are squeezed by the country’s first recession in 17 years. Debts are piling up.

Financial pressure

“Now because of the uncertainty of employment we do find that police officers are working longer hours under more stressful conditions,” said Amoore.
“There are less of them because of retrenchments. They are dealing with a lot more on their plates and a bigger burden. They are not getting enough help for it. They are not thinking about it. They don’t know where to go.”

Those who are too strapped for cash to seek private care have few options.

Officers who call the helpline say they can’t turn to police psychologists or social workers because of the stigma attached to mental illness in South Africa. It involves giving your badge number, said Amoore.
“It’s seen as a sign of weakness. If you talk about it, it means something is wrong. And if you talk about it within your station, you are worried do you get a promotion? Are they going to think anything less of you?” she said.
“They are too busy. You don’t have the luxury to get help. You have to sort of suck it up and move on. They don’t know where to turn. They feel completely overwhelmed.”

Many of the callers have been in the force for many years but never received help.

Police officials were not immediately available for comment.

Grim new crime statistics will pile pressure on the police to improve performance, increasing chances of psychological problems as they confront brazen criminals who carjack motorists at intersections in broad daylight.

About 50 people are killed in the country each day, sometimes for as little as a mobile phone, as police confront what the government has called a “killing field” in Africa’s biggest economy.

Violent business robberies climbed by 41.5 % from April 2008 to March 2009. House robberies rose by 27.3 %.

Criminals blow up ATM machines at will. Newspapers rarely publish stories about successful police operations. But policemen make headlines when they are gunned down.
“There is another shootout on the highway. Another police officer dead, another cash in transit hijacking,” said Amoore.
“They are dealing with a lot more crime, a lot more serious crime and people are becoming more desperate because of the recession. That definitely has a toll on them.”

Pic: SAPS member