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“No police training could have mentally prepared me for a terrorist attack”

Guest Blogger Sophie had been a policewoman for 3 months when she was called to the London Bridge attack in June 2017. She talks about the impact it had on her mental health - and how she’s found hope for the future.

I’ve wanted to be a police officer since I was little. I was so excited to pass my training and join the team in Peckham - but I’d only been there for three months when the terrorist attack happened in London on 3 June 2017.

I remember it like it was yesterday.

A call came to say that a white van had crashed on London Bridge. My first thought was that it could be a drunk driver, but my colleague said straight away that it must be terrorist attack. We drove for 8 minutes and were the first police officers on the scene. I didn’t know what I was running into.

We got to Borough Market and it was chaos. Someone ran past me, shouting that the men had bombs. I couldn't process anything, I was so confused. Then I looked ahead and came face-to-face with the attackers. They had knives in their hands and bombs strapped to their chests.

As soon as they saw me and my colleague, we were the target. They started chasing after us and I turned and ran. I remember thinking, “This is it, I’m not going home tonight.” We didn't know the bombs were fake.

No training could prepare anybody for that kind of experience.

I saw so much that night and I carried the guilt on my shoulders for months. I kept feeling like I could have done more.

I wasn’t sleeping for days at a time and, when I did sleep, I had nightmares that took me back to that night. I began having suicidal thoughts and became a recluse at work. I couldn’t answer calls anymore because I was scared that they’d be knife calls. I completely lost my confidence.

One day I just couldn’t get out of bed. I called my sergeant to say I couldn’t come in - I told him it felt like something was wrong in my head. In the months following that call, I tried to take my own life 3 times. I felt so on my own.

After the third suicide attempt, a crisis team came to my house every day to talk through my symptoms and build a safety plan. They put me on medication, which I didn't want to take, but it had got to a point where I was just so low. They also referred me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disoder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and insomnia. With the help of work, I went to therapy.

I didn't believe in therapy before.

I couldn’t get my head around why just talking to someone or going through exercises could help me. But it was probably one of the best things I've ever done. The three-month process was so emotional and I let go of a lot of guilt. I don't think about that night now and it’s a relief to finally say I don’t dream about the attackers anymore.

The therapy was quite expensive, so I was lucky that I got it. But when I read stories of people that didn’t get the help they needed, it makes me very emotional. It hurts to know that there are people out there that felt how I felt, but slipped through the net. The system isn’t strong enough - there needs to be more help readily available.

Life at home is difficult - my dad has terminal cancer so I turned to my nan (pictured). At first she didn’t understand, but after the crisis team came and explained about mental health, she became so supportive. Now she’s even more passionate about mental health than me and talks to all her friends about how not enough is being done. My friends have also been amazing - when I was first diagnosed, they Googled everything to find out ways they could help me. It’s great to know that if I have a bad day I won’t be alone.

Talking can make such a difference - it’s massive to find someone who wants to listen.

More services like therapy should be available, as I don’t think medication is the only answer. I’d love to go to schools and do assemblies to show people who are struggling that they can speak about it and not be scared of people thinking they’re just attention seeking. More needs to be done to reach out to people, rather than waiting for them to approach services.

My PTSD and depression have improved a lot because of the therapy. But anxiety is something I think I’ll have to live with - I can’t remember life before it. I hope research can find better ways for people to cope with anxiety or even to catch it earlier. With a cold, you get symptoms like a runny nose or a sore throat. Is there a way we can feel anxiety coming on and pick up on it sooner? Is anxiety preventable?

In the past year I’ve moved into my own house with a nice little garden.

It sounds cheesy, but I've also bought myself a bunny - I read online that bunnies can be really therapeutic. She’s given me a lot of stability and something to care about and look forward to coming home to.

A few months ago, I went back to work. It hasn't been completely smooth sailing, but it’s a big step forward. I’m trying office-based work at first, instead of going straight back to the front line.

This experience has been so hard, but it’s shown me that you just have to keep going. There is hope and things will get better. It is amazing to be able to look back and see I’ve come a very, very long way. I'm glad I didn't go - there's so much more to come.

Last updated: 6 June 2019

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