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RGP’s mental health strategy puts focus on ‘strength in vulnerability’

Eyleen Gomez

A police officer who through personal experience became a champion of mental health wellbeing has urged his fellow officers to be open about their own struggles and to watch out for their colleagues.

Tony Gaul, who joined the Royal Gibraltar Police after a career in the British army, said police officers faced multiple stresses during the course of their daily work that could impact on mental health.

He encouraged officers to talk openly to each other and not shy away from showing vulnerability as a way of shedding the stigma that sometimes still exists around mental health issues.

“To be vulnerable, to talk and to show that vulnerable side, to me, that is real strength,” he said.

Mr Gaul was speaking during a recent presentation at Buffadero as part of the RGP’s new focus on mental health among its shift officers and staff.

For the RGP, mental health awareness and the wellbeing of its personnel has become a key priority.

He spoke of Wellbeing Champions, a new policy within the RGP to make a number of trained officers available to colleagues to help them deal with any aspects of wellbeing they may have.

For Mr Gaul, this has a personal dimension.

“One of these persons has had an effect on my life,” he said, explaining how a simple phone call at the right time can have a life-changing impact.

That, in fact, is what happened to him.

“By [this officer] being a Wellbeing Champion, he has pretty much saved my life,” he said.

“But the other point I want to make it that you do not have to be a Wellbeing Champion to help others.”

“Remember, when you look left and right, a sergeant is a sergeant, but ultimately a human being. So are inspectors, so are PCs, we all are, and we can all look out for each other.”

“We need to remember that everyone has a back-story and you don’t have to have a really tough upbringing to have mental health issues.”

“Things can just get on top of you.”

Recently, all the RGP’s Wellbeing Champions took part in a five-day mental health first aid course at the Gibraltar University.

Mr Gaul stressed that everyone needs to help themselves before they can help anyone else.

He said people should go forward and seek the help they need themselves as it cannot be done for you.

Mr Gaul, via his Project Tony Gaul MBE Fitness and Wellbeing, has intervened to help 40 men who were experiencing suicidal thoughts, 15 of whom were locally based.

His project aims to encourage people to look after their physical and mental health as a priority, and in turn to help others do the same.

He believes this is the message the RGP is also trying to get instilled into officers.

He told the officers at the presentation that change was happening within the force regarding mental health, a view some of those present also shared.

“[The Commissioner of Police] is fully supportive of the welfare and mental health of members of the public, officers and civilian staff of the force,” Mr Gaul said.

“It is changing.”

“It is changing and because of this, the stigma of mental health is changing.”

“If you have a mental health problem, get it sorted. Do not sit on a problem and don’t complain and yet do nothing about it.”

“And for those in the room, [if] you have somebody doing something about it and they are talking, you listen and you act.”

“That is the message here: you listen and you act."

Mr Gaul is an advocate for mental health and is not shy when it comes to speaking about his own battles, which have included PTSD and attempted suicide.

He also promotes physical health and believes it helps with regards to a person’s mental wellbeing.

He told the officers present of his story, which started in 1973 when he was born in the UK.

His upbringing was one of tragedy and pain which continued in different degrees until he ran away from home at the age of 14.

While telling his story, he recalled that there were times when the police were called to his home and he used to hide, afraid he was in trouble. A fear that many parents perpetrate onto their children with malicious intent or what they believe to be an innocent way of warning a child to behave.

Mr Gaul stressed that an officer should always tell children they are not in trouble and that they can help them, and to correct anyone who tells their children that an officer will reprimand them.

Shortly after he left home and while living in a halfway house, Mr Gaul saw an advert on television which resulted in him joining the army as an infantry man.

He completed 26 and a half years in the military, half of that within the Royal Army Physical Training Core.

During his service he toured Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq.

“When I did physical fitness I realised that physical fitness helps your wellbeing, it has been proven scientifically,” he said.
It was this feeling that prompted him to join the Royal Army Physical Training Core.

His work led him to receiving an MBE from the Queen in the 2012 New Year’s honours list.

“I go see the Queen, the Queen tells me she is proud of me. She then told me I was being promoted and I am moving to Gibraltar,” he said.

“She said the people in Gibraltar are lovely people and you are going to have a lovely time. Well, she was right wasn’t she, as I am still here.”

Having being posted to Gibraltar in 2012 he left the army in 2016. He later joined the RGP.

Earlier this year he sought help for his mental health and undertook a variety of different methods that helped him.

“Physical fitness helps with wellbeing, talking to somebody helps and if somebody talks to you listen. Truly listen to them because it can save their life,” he said.

“You have to talk, you have listen if someone is talking to you and you have to appreciate that yes we are police officers but we are human beings as well and that is the important piece here.”

Finally, Mr Gaul wants the public to know that he appreciates their support, not just as Tony but also as a police officer.

“I still have counselling to this day and I do not care if anyone has stigma that I have got mental health issues,” he said.

“I am not bothered at all.”

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