TV cop shows reinforce stigma around mental health within policing, research suggests

Martin Evans
·4 min read
TV police often dramas reinforce the image of officers keeping a lid on their mental health battles
TV police often dramas reinforce the image of officers keeping a lid on their mental health battles

The unrealistic portrayal of police officers on television is helping to fuel a mental health crisis within the profession, a former detective turned academic has suggested.

While most police dramas depict officers stoically putting their emotions to one side as they deal with harrowing events, the reality is more likely to see them sobbing in their patrol cars or suffering breakdowns, according to a major research project.

Dr Sarah-Jane Lennie, who spent 18-years in the police before qualifying as a psychologist, said officers were often afraid to admit they were struggling with mental health issues because they were trying to live up to impossible ideals reinforced by the media.

As part of an innovative study conducted for Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr Lennie asked officers from 16 different forces to keep audio diaries in order to record their emotions following stressful situations.

Her findings suggest many officers are suppressing their true feelings at work because they fear displaying emotions will be viewed as a form of weakness or an indicator of incompetence.

Outlining her findings in an article with The Conversation website, Ms Lennie explained that this was fuelling PTSD among officers, who rarely sought help for fear of being stigmatised or denied promotion.

She said there was a culture of suppression anyway within policing but this was being made worse by the way officers were portrayed in popular police dramas such as Line of Duty.

In one audio diary recording one of the officers taking part in the study said: “I don’t think you can be openly emotional as an officer, you might be seen as a bit of a wimp.”

A female officer who works in child protection added: “I think the compartmentalising and squashing down of your immediate reaction is a kind of unwritten rule as a police officer, it is certainly one practice that I have adopted to deal with traumatic incidents.”

Another added: “You are expected to be the robot that comes in and deals with horrific incidents and supports the family and supports whoever is involved, picks up the pieces and goes away again.”

Dr Lennie said the portrayal of policing on television was one of the factors that was helping to reinforce the stigma surrounding emotional honesty, because TV cops rarely showed their human side.

She said: “Society expects police officers to behave in certain ways and that is informed by the representation of the police in the media.

“In fictional representations there are often depictions of alcoholism, most officers are divorced or have very turbulent relationships, and it’s as if that is what happens when you're a good cop, you give everything up for the job.

“Police dramas create these characters who are very stoic and don’t show emotion and then officers try to fit that mould.

“We are very much social creatures and we want to be accepted and if that is the behaviour that we see and that is the way a police officer is being depicted, we want to fit that mould and be accepted."

Dr Lennie said it was not just the public who failed to understand the true toll that the policing could take, but new recruits also, who often had a false impression of the role.

She told the Telegraph: “Unless a police officer has some family connection, their understanding of what is expected of them will have likely been gained from the media and is then continually reinforced throughout their career. To be a good cop you don’t show your emotion.”

Dr Lennie, who rose to the rank of Detective Inspector before encountering her own mental health issues, said occasionally TV dramas did attempt to lift the lid on the trauma officers suffered.

Sarah Lancashire starred as Sgt Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley - PA
Sarah Lancashire starred as Sgt Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley - PA

“Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire has offered one of the more realistic representations. But what it showed was Sarah Lancashire’s character being very stoic.

“She had gone through an awful lot and she doesn't talk about it but in one scene she goes into a police car and cries where no-one else can see her. It is something that really chimes with me and it's what I hear about actual police officers doing.”

Dr Lennie said she hoped drama writers would recognise that police officers had a human as well as a professional side.

“What would help enormously would be if police officers were depicted as whole human beings, with empathy and emotions and responses.

“This would wake the public up and raise awareness of the fact that officers can’t suppress emotions. That would help enormously and it would help the organisation change as well.”