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Post traumatic stress is bad, and navigating medical certification rules is arguably worse, says Sergeant Mark Surman who is offering to support other staff who may be struggling with the process. He shares his story.

On September 8, 2021, I woke up for work like a normal day, but there was something quite different about it. I could not physically move. I felt as if my body had completely shut down. All I could think about was that I couldn’t bear to put the uniform on and do it again.

As I lay in bed trying to work out what was wrong with me, my amazing wife told me she was worried about me. She had never said that to me before and I assured her I would talk to someone.

It’s fair to say I have had a rough time in Police, seemingly always rostered on when the worst jobs came in. Since I was promoted over three years ago, for most sets of six shifts I was dealing with something horrific every second or third day, sometimes multiple times a shift, including the Whakaari/White Island tragedy.

After three days in bed, I returned to work and, as promised, I reached out to a senior member, which was difficult. I felt especially bad as I had just transferred to the area. A few weeks later, after speaking to a psychologist, I wrote a letter to the area commander asking for six months’ leave without pay. I was not aware of the process and believed I just needed time out. I was subsequently granted sick leave for a workplace injury.

Over the next four months, my family and I began to heal together. I had been advised that I needed a complete separation from work for four months, but, as I discovered, this is not how it works.

The first issue was that I had to visit a GP every month, to retell and relive my story so the doctor would sign off another month’s medical certificate. The first GP I saw believed this was ridiculous and gave me a certificate for three months.

However, Police insurance administrator company Gallagher Bassett said I needed to provide one each month. I explained the situation, the recommendations from my psychologist and GP, and the effect this was having on me, but policy appeared to outweigh humanity.

My wife noticed each month when the time approached to get the medical certificate, I would become anxious, and my alcohol intake would increase.

I began to experience some very dark days and felt extremely lonely. Even though you have support, it is still you who must go through everything and come to terms with it all and what is happening to your body.

It only takes a couple of mouse clicks to leave the Police and because of the affect this policy was having on me, I came pretty close. But I pressed on, trying to keep myself busy and doing my monthly GP visits. They couldn’t understand why Gallagher Bassett couldn’t liaise monthly with the professional who had diagnosed me and recommended the four months off.

In December 2021, Gallagher Bassett told me I needed to see a specialist psychiatrist in Christchurch to be diagnosed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had already been diagnosed with severe PTSD, so acute that my body had chemically shut itself down.

This day was daunting. The psychiatrist went right back to my childhood and explored my case in extreme detail. By the end of it, I was a train wreck and, funnily enough, the diagnosis was the same.

He explained that while working in Whakatāne I had built up a wall to cope and had reached the point where my body operated completely on adrenaline most of the time. At the time, I thought I could deal with anything continuously.

When I transferred to the West Coast, and relaxed a little, I naturally removed some layers of the wall, and it all came crashing down the morning I was bedridden. He explained the chemical reaction that had happened and said that if it had been left any longer, the outcome may not have been so good.

On my return to work, Gallagher Bassett required a medical certificate, as per the policy. I didn’t even bother disputing it. It was a 20-second phone call telling a GP I was all good and he signed me off over the phone. I have been back at work since, fulltime, with no real questions asked.

My experience of PTS was bad, but my experience of policy was arguably worse.

We lose too many great cops due to policy, and with mental injury, and this needs to change. Even though you can’t physically see it, PTS is worse than the many physical injuries I have had, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.

Before this happened to me, I didn’t really understand anything about PTS. I didn’t know what was going on. I never thought I would be able to feel normal again and now I want to use my experience to help and support other staff who may be struggling with similar issues.

My advice is to take the time to kōrero, and my phone is always open for a call.

I would like to thank all the amazing staff down here on the West Coast who have accepted me back to the job without prejudice.

I have given a large chunk of my soul to this job and, due to policy, I was nearly another statistic as a two-click cop out.

Note: Police confirmed to Police News that medical certificates need to be updated each month so that employees see their GP or medical specialists regularly enough to ensure proactive management of their injury or illness. However, Police return-to-work advisers can be consulted if an employee feels they need to negotiate the policy.

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