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“After attempting suicide twice, my whole approach to policing has changed”

In 2015, whilst dealing with depression and anxiety, Sergeant Mark Montgomery tried to take his own life. Three years later, he reflects on his journey to becoming more open about mental health, and how his experiences have changed the way he works.

My mental health issues started in November 2013 and have been ongoing ever since. In that time I’ve made two suicide attempts – the first in 2014 and the second in 2015. If it weren’t for a stranger intervening, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t be here now.

My depression and anxiety began around the time my marriage ended. My daughter - who was 6 months old – moved 200 miles away with my ex-wife. My mum was extremely ill – she had lung cancer and had recently had a stroke. I was her primary carer, while trying to hold down my job as a sergeant. At the same time, one of my best friends was killed. This all happened in the space of about 4 months. I always look at it like a bucket of water – if you put so much in, it’s going to overflow. That’s exactly what happened.

"It snowballed to the point where I had a breakdown"

I didn’t recognise the signs and the symptoms – I was a big, macho guy who wasn’t going to take medication, open up, or go to see my GP. Because of all those things I didn’t do, I got steadily worse.

In the early stages, it was more of an irritability. I wasn’t eating much and was struggling to sleep because I was overthinking everything. I used to go to Aldi, drive home and unpack the car only to find I hadn’t bought anything. I was drinking up to 12 cans a day of Monster and Red Bull, just to get through. I’d go to work, come home – where I was living on my own - and not go out again.

All of this had a profound effect on my mind – it snowballed to the point where I had a breakdown.

I began hearing voices. They weren’t like voices in films, with an angel and a demon. The voices were my own, telling me how bad a father I was, how bad a husband I was, how I’d mucked everything up. They went on for months, all the way through to 2014, to the point where I believed them and they overwhelmed everything else in my head. Every positive thought I had was automatically extinguished by a negative voice.

In 2014, when I first tried to take my own life, it didn’t work. A few months later, I went to see my GP for the first time, who put me on medication. But in early 2015, I attempted to kill myself again. I’d written letters and planned it meticulously, trying not to inconvenience anyone because I’ve been in the police force a long time and seen how suicides can affect people. 

All of a sudden, a guy turned up from nowhere in a bright yellow jacket and said, “Mate, you alright?” No one had asked me if I was alright in two years. No one had taken a moment of their time to ask, because I’d hidden it so well. I’d put on a front that no one could see through.

I looked him in the eyes and thought, “What am I doing”. I packed up the letters, went home, then got on the train to the police station, where I collapsed. That was the point I realised I had a serious issue – the point when I started to talk and get help.

Getting help

Since February 2015 I’ve been undergoing treatment. It’s been a rocky road with several ups and downs - my mum was incredibly ill and passed away just before last Christmas, which shook me. She never knew what I’d been through, because I didn’t want to burden her.

My sleeping is still all over the place, which has a knock-on effect. But when you’ve been that low there’s only one way to go – you can only come up again. I think I needed to hit that point to realise I’ve got a lot going for me.

I’ve got a beautiful 5 year old girl, a great relationship with my ex-wife and a wonderful new partner. She’s a mental health first aid trainer and knows everything about me - I’m not afraid to talk to her.

Although I don’t hear voices anymore, I still suffer from anxiety. But I have my own coping mechanisms, my own strategies. I try to live in the moment and not think about what I’m doing tomorrow. I take a step back before I do anything – because, depending on my mood, the slightest thing can be a catastrophe. Part of me is forever on the backfoot, thinking what will shake me next. That’s why I try not to think too much.

"A lot of people have taken me into their confidence since I started talking"

I started talking more widely about my experiences after a construction company asked me to come and speak. On a building site, where there’s a very macho culture, they never hear from people like me. Once I’d done one talk, other businesses approached me – including the police, who asked me to do their Vulnerability Training. Now every officer in the City of London police knows I’ve struggled. But they also know I’m still working here, that I can function and that I have a valuable role to play. A lot of people have taken me into their confidence since I started talking.

Today, I appreciate and empathise with people a lot more. My whole approach to policing has changed. Before it would be black and white – you’ve committed a crime, you’re a criminal. Now I question, “Why are you acting this way?”. Officers should be trained to see signs and symptoms of mental illness – it’s easy to treat people as being aggressive when there’s actually an underlying issue.

Since 2016, I’ve helped form the Suicide Prevention Plan for the City of London. Part of this work involves going to local businesses within the footprint of main bridges in the city where myself, Mind and The Samaritans advise people how to intervene if it looks like someone is considering taking their own life. I always advise people not to be afraid to ask if someone’s okay - it might give them the help they need, as it did for me.

It’s great to see the research MQ is doing and to see people talking about their experiences – particularly celebrities. I think mental health is individual in every case, and research needs to look at personalising treatment in line with what’s best for each individual.

The pressures of modern society are so great – people have to live up to certain expectations or they’re seen to not fit in. I think a lot of people are afraid to be themselves.

Last updated: 5 September 2018

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