THE number of mental health-related sick days taken by Merseyside Police staff has increased by 345 per cent since 2009, new data has revealed.

A Freedom of Information request submitted by the Local Democracy Reporter Service revealed that in 2009-10, a total of 8,419 days were lost through staff (officers and civilian employees) being absent due to a mental health-related illness.

By 2016-18, a total of 26,240 days were lost through mental health-related illnesses – an increase of more than 210 per cent.

And during the course of the last financial year, 37,463 days were lost – a 43 per cent rise on the previous year.

The huge surge in mental health-related absences comes against a backdrop of police cuts that has seen the force lose 1,000 of its 4,500 officers since the start of austerity in 2009.

Merseyside’s Police Commissioner Jane Kennedy blamed the rise on pressures caused by “savage cuts”.

Ms Kennedy said: “The number of police officers available to serve the public have been cut more savagely than ever in the history of policing on Merseyside by a Government that does not understand the pressures they face.

“Police officers and staff are under strain every single day and that burden has increased as their numbers have decreased.

“Increasing sickness absence is a symptom of that pressure.

“The force is experiencing heightened demand and individuals face growing workloads, often including being exposed to very traumatic events.

“This all takes its toll.”

While sickness levels for men and women have risen significantly over the past decade, the disparity between the two has closed considerably.

In 2009-10, a total of 6,401 days were lost by female staff, more than three times higher than their male counterparts (2,018).

By 2016-17 there was virtually no disparity between the two, with 13,030 days lost by male staff and 13,210 by female staff.

The gap widened slightly in 2017-18, with 17,661 days lost through male staff compared to 19,802 days lost through female staff.

Because of the increased diagnoses of mental health illness, Merseyside Police Federation has increased its provision of counselling from one day per week to four days per week.

Tony Fairclough, chairman of Merseyside Police Federation, said: “The figures come as no surprise given the drastic reduction in police officers nationally and here in Merseyside, in which we have seen a reduction of more than 1,000 officers since the cuts began.

“They highlight that officers are under increasing demand, with fewer numbers to pick up that demand. Our members deal with traumatic incidents on a daily basis doing their upmost to provide a first-class service to the communities they serve in Merseyside.

“Increased absence through mental health and psychological disorder sickness is a symptom of the pressures our members face.

“The ability today to diagnose those officers suffering from mental illness has also improved greatly which has enabled Merseyside Police Federation, together with what Merseyside Police provides through their occupational health unit, to provide services which can assist our members to recovery and return them to work sooner had these services not been available.”

The Federation has now called on the Government to increase funding to allow the recruitment of more officers.

Mr Fairclough said this will help “stem the tide” of cancelled rest days and officers working longer hours, so they can get the rest and recuperation they need.

Merseyside’s Police Commissioner also called on Government Ministers to “act accordignly” in light of the figures.

Ms Kennedy said: “The force works closely with Mind and other local mental health charities on a number of initiatives aimed at caring for staff and providing extra support when they need it.

“However, there is no substitute for having more officers available. That is what we need here to help Merseyside Police keep us safe and secure.

“We need more officers, not less. I hope Government ministers take note of these figures and act upon them accordingly.”

Geoff Broadhead, director of resources at Merseyside Police said the force is “committed” to supporting officers and staff.

He said: “Our own police officers and staff work in difficult, challenging and often distressing situations and it is important to be able to talk about and recognise the signs of mental health symptoms, both in ourselves and in others.

“We are aware that cuts in funding have put more pressure on our staff and all police forces across the country.

“Merseyside Police has through the mental health charity Mind, signed up to the Blue Light Services ‘Time to Change Pledge’.

“The pledge demonstrates the force’s commitment to help look after our own staff who are experiencing poor mental health.

“Following all the initiatives we have implemented, we are now much better able to identify, record and support our staff and they are now more willing to come forward and talk to us about any mental health issues.”