We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
I worked in a job for around a year that involved cataloguing case files.
The reason for this work was focused on the cost of storing the material, due to austerity measures and the budget cuts that come along with it.
Around 18 months or so earlier, the government-owned Forensic Science Service had been closed as it was losing money. The Market share had dropped from 100% down to around 60% after private companies had been awarded contracts to fulfil forensic laboratory services to the various police forces. I had been working as a DNA analyst in the labs for 10 years and was suddenly made redundant…
I went on to work for a friend doing some contract work, which mostly involved working away from home during the week. I missed my wife and children and wanted much more to be at home.
When I saw on a Facebook page that jobs were available to work in the archive on a fixed term basis, cataloguing all the evidence from a forensic lab that had accumulated over the last 50 years, I thought I would apply. The cost of storing all this forensic material had been overlooked when the government had made their decision to close the Forensic lab, and so they had to set up a new department called the ‘forensic archive’ after the closure had taken place. Some of the staff had been transferred over from the FSS to this new home office department to help with this mammoth task.
At first, the work involved sorting through casefiles. Murder and sexual offence case files were kept, burglary and drug offence files older than a certain amount of time could be shredded. I was one of several people from a larger team that were selected based on previous experience, to look at some of the more graphic files. This included photos of extremely violent crimes and pathology records.
I was also looking at items that had been stored for many years in a freezer, that had been recovered from crime scenes. These included items that needed to be sorted through and processed, as a recent change in the law meant that certain things could no longer be retained.
Initially, I found there was a great deal of support from an understanding management team, who allowed us to manage our own work load and to take longer breaks if we felt we needed to – something crucial to mental wellbeing, given the often horrific subject matter involved. We worked well as a team to go through this material.
There were photos of murder and rape victims, suicides, and items such as bed sheets covered in vomit and nappies/diapers that had been inspected as part of abuse cases.
As a team, we would cope with all this by using dark humour – a way of desensitising and dehumanising the frequently difficult and disgusting subject matter, you understand – and when I left the building I would just ‘switch off’ from work.
Work was work and home was home.
When one day the Project manager left, followed by both the team leaders, the style of management also changed, from a supportive management style to a more results-driven, high pressure environment. We were told that once the one-year fixed-term contract expired, they would extend the contracts of some staff but not others, depending on how many files you had scanned and processed over a set period of time. I made the decision to start looking for another job.
One day, the supervisors decided to buy everyone lunch as a reward for our hard work so far, which was nice of them.
They then put a sign up telling us we were only allowed one slice of pizza until everyone had had some, then we would be able to ask for some more. Slightly annoyed by this, I decided to go and get a sandwich from the café I sometimes went to, allowing myself to get away from everyone and relax for 20 minutes or so.
Not long after this we were told we were only allowed the minimum 15-minute break, and the time started from when we left our workstation, meaning we wouldn’t have time to pop to the café anymore. This also meant we had to sit in a room with no natural lighting for a large portion of the day.
The atmosphere had changed from a relaxed, supportive place of work to a feeling that your actions were being monitored the whole time, and any trust between the team members and the managers sitting in the office started to deteriorate. A lady I had known for the past 12 years as quite a happy lady was one day talking to me and said she couldn’t cope with it anymore. The pressure was building, and It felt like a timebomb was ticking; that something would happen soon…
With this added pressure, alongside the psychological strain of the work already, I found myself more and more wound up, drinking more at home, and more prone to flying off the handle. When I got home from work, I felt like I needed some time to wind down, and not just leap into parenting. This could cause tension with my wife who had been home with a toddler all day and was waiting for me to get home to help with the kids. We would end up arguing more.
After a while, this all eventually led to me having a breakdown. At work.
I ended up shouting “Leave me alone!” at one of the team leaders and then burst into tears.
The managers didn’t really know what to do with me. I was taken to the break room away from everyone else and simply offered a cup of tea. They eventually let me go home early.
I visited the Doctor, who diagnosed me with having had an anxiety attack and signed me off for two weeks. I knew I had to get out of my current job. I didn’t want the extra sick-note extension the doctor offered to me anyway, and so I started to apply for other jobs while I was signed off.
The two weeks had passed, and I returned to work, but something shocking happened: When I returned, I was called into the office and told that I would receive an official warning for my “behaviour”. By this point I had given up caring about the job, and was counting the days, minutes, and seconds till I didn’t have to go again.
That warning for my behaviour had centred on the shouting “Leave me alone!” at one of the managers, before my breakdown. I knew then for certain that the job not only wasn’t helping my mental health but offered little provisions to assist me as I worked through horrendous case files. Even worse, the added results-driven pressure dehumanised me, forcing me to view and process more disgusting case files in such a short amount of time than any human being should be expected to handle.
Needless to say, I left the job shortly after and started a new job working in a milk laboratory based north of Wolverhampton. This role did involve working with cow- and goat-milk samples, which could have turned sour and curdled and sometimes had cow poo in them, which some of the staff would complain about…
I thought: “At least its not frozen body parts or vomit”.
We did have to work hard, which I didn’t mind because it made the day go quicker. My shift pattern meant I had to work weekends, so after a year I applied for another job at the NHS. This ended up being a very short period of around three months working in an NHS blood lab. Just after starting I was contacted by a recruitment agency; they had secured for me an interview and so shortly afterwards I moved to my current job as European Technical support for a US based company.
I really enjoy the variety of my current role; unloading vans with the forklift; answering customer enquiries; logging on to customers machines remotely to investigate problems; calibrating machines; and supporting the engineers in the field.
It's important to remember that the forensic job was itself bad enough – but someone has to do it.
Looking back, what made it unmanageable – the thing that led to an anxiety attack – was the sociopathic attitude of those in charge putting undue added pressure on people. We had no access to therapy, or debriefing sessions, no access to a psychologist who could assess our mental state and help us to manage our emotions, but instead were faced only with results-driven, negative incentives.
I can still see all the images of the things I saw during my time there, in my head, but I have found that cutting down on alcohol, exercising more and not looking at horrific photos of victims of violent crime have helped me to get better over the last few years.