In March 2017, a terrorist drove a car into pedestrians in central London, killing four pedestrians and injuring countless others. He then stabbed a police officer to death before being shot dead by armed police, in what has come to be known as the 2017 Westminster attack. PC Paul Haylock was among the first on the scene that day. When he arrived, casualties were still trapped beneath the vehicle – which had crashed into the security fence outside the Houses of Parliament – and there were fears that it could be rigged with explosives.
Haylock – a constable who joined the Metropolitan Police in 2002 – painstakingly searched the attacker’s car with his explosives detection dog to confirm it was safe. Then he helped clear the debris and abandoned cars strewn across Westminster Bridge, where dead bodies were covered with tarpaulins and paramedics worked on injured survivors.
On his return to the police station, he was told to write out his statement immediately, but refused. Haylock felt hurt by the lack of support and recognition for what he had just gone through. “You’re never given time to reflect and digest everything that happens,” he tells VICE, “so you never really deal with it properly – you just bury it.”
British policing is facing an existential crisis amid unprecedented levels of low public trust, with forces under fire over institutional racism, misogyny, and a lack of accountability for officer wrongdoing.
Then there’s the mental health crisis within the force among its own officers. Studies have found the prevalence of PTSD among police officers to range from seven to 19 percent, as a result of the traumatising incidents experienced throughout their careers, with little aftercare from their employer. This has contributed to 221 mostly male officers in England and Wales taking their own lives from 2011 to 2021, according to the ONS, many more than died on duty.
Suicide crossed Haylock’s mind too, in 2019. He was at rock bottom with the traumas of the Westminster attack still unaddressed, along with a career’s worth of other gruelling incidents adding up to a deep disenchantment with life in the police force. On top of that, he and his wife had recently lost their baby while six months pregnant, and he was struggling with severe bouts of depression and anxiety.
But his love for his wife and two children meant that it was never a serious consideration, and so he began seeking left-field means for healing. He had already declined pills from his GP when, during the pandemic, he began experimenting with microdosing magic mushrooms and meditation.
Then he got in touch with Heroic Hearts Project UK, a non-profit funded by private wealthy donors, which was organising its second ayahuasca retreat for military veterans and first responders in the Peruvian Amazon. It was founded by Keith Abraham, a former paratrooper, as a sister organisation of the pioneering US group.
Around a decade ago, Abraham returned from the brutal fighting in Afghanistan wracked with PTSD, depression and grief, but drinking ayahuasca in Peru helped him process many of the traumatic moments from his life. Several years later he made it his mission to increase access to psychedelics for UK veterans. In 2022, the organisation held its first retreat in Peru. Participants soon told of how the medicine helped banish crippling forms of PTSD, and Abraham began organising another retreat straight away.
Haylock fitted Abraham’s criteria for acceptance onto his psychedelic therapy program, and before he knew it, he was in the jungle sitting in a giant wooden teepee drinking the bitter psychedelic concoction alongside five former soldiers and an ex-police officer. “It taught me things,” he says. “I was outside of my body, watching the rewiring of my brain. It helped me understand myself and see where I’ve got flaws.” The second and third ceremonies during the five-day retreat – facilitated by an Indigenous couple from the Shipibo tribe – helped him process childhood traumas, “and stop reliving the past”.
Haylock is still a serving officer, but he’s chosen to speak publicly to raise awareness of the potential benefits of psychedelic medicines, which mostly remain illegal in the UK with no accepted medical uses. There is no published study assessing the long term efficacy of ritualistic ayahuasca use for PTSD, but there is increasing evidence that suggests immediate and short term benefits, which could be life-saving.
“You don’t want people ending their lives, if they could have a game-changing experience like this,” Haylock says. “I can recover from troubling thoughts so much quicker now. I just take a deep breath and I don’t go to those dark places anymore. The shift in mindset has been incredible.”
Jamie, a former PC – who has requested to use a fake identity for privacy reasons – was medically retired from the police in 2018 after a decade of dealing with horrific incidents, including deaths and child abuse within his own community. He was diagnosed with a debilitating combo of depression and PTSD, and says he never received proper aftercare from the police during his career. “You’d be lucky to go back to the office after a death and someone made you a cup of tea,” he says. “It’s very much you deal with it, and you just get straight back into the next job.”
The impact of it all steadily took its toll. “By the time I left the police, I was taking an antidepressant, a mood stabiliser and an antipsychotic – I was just heavily sedated,” he says. “Every time I was having a crisis, the GP just kept increasing the dose and then added something else on.” Around two years ago, he came off the medication and, like Horlock, began microdosing psilocybin mushrooms. “I thought: None of this is working, I’ve got to try something else because I might just kill myself,” he recalls. “I’d had enough.”
A regular, sub-perceptual dose of the psychedelic lifted his depression, he says. “It gave me a little bit more motivation; I felt nicer, more tolerant and had greater bandwidth for dealing with life. The positive effects spiralled.” However the hyper vigilant states caused by his PTSD persisted – at least, until he drank ayahuasca on the retreat. “I have done ten years worth of talking therapy, and the ayahuasca dealt with all the stuff that I couldn’t talk about because it was stored in the body,” he says.
The changes in his everyday life were palpable. “Every morning when the kids jumped out of bed with a bang, my body would be straight into fight or flight mode. But now when they do it, my brain just reminds me it’s the kids getting up.”
The former officer chose not to be named as he fears that any criticism of the police could see him lose his small pension. He did not receive an injury-on-duty pension despite the results of his fitness and medical tests plummeting during his time in the force. “My claim is that I’ve been injured on duty by the incidents I have witnessed and they are refuting it,” he says. “Because it’s in my head and I haven’t got a visible injury, I didn’t get anything.”
Neil Woods, a former detective sergeant and undercover cop, also left the force with severe PTSD. “There isn’t any real support,” he says. “When police officers start to show any behavioural change as a result of their mental illness, then the institution treats them only with hostility.” The scale of the mental health crisis within policing, and the failure of traditional treatment options for many, he adds, means “police officers from all over are seeking help from psychedelics.”
Unlike veterans serving in conflicts abroad, police officers often cannot leave behind the potentially triggering sites of nightmarish events from their everyday lives. Jamie would even bump into people he has arrested, as well as go past properties and places where heinous acts had been perpetrated. “Some police might have to go past the site of a previous traumatic incident or accident every day,” says Abraham. Another 60 veterans and police officers are on Heroic Hearts Project UK’s waiting list for the next fully subsidised retreats, which come with structured integration following the intense psychedelic journeys, and are funded by private benefactors.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council says exposure to traumatic events is “a difficult reality” for officers who are “exposed to some of life’s most challenging situations”.
“We recognise that improving the mental health and wellbeing of officers and staff is an open-ended process and our efforts to bring about real change to people’s lives are ongoing,” a spokesperson tells VICE. A national police wellbeing service was launched in 2019 to provide support and guidance for forces, while a mental health survey allows chiefs to assess where help is needed most. “Forces also offer a range of occupational health provisions, additional training and health checks for staff and officers, so they can be better supported and speak up when they are not OK.”
But a revitalising hallucinogenic trip may be exactly what the doctor ordered for some of the police officers who are leaving the force in droves. A record 9,200 cops across England and Wales changed careers in the year up until March 2023, and the number of those voluntarily resigning doubled in 2021. Last year, a Police Federation survey suggested that the exodus is only set to deepen, with one in five planning to leave, citing pay and working conditions as two of the main concerns.
However, Haylock has no regrets about his long career in the police, and he is proud of the many positive contributions he has made. “My path in life was joining the police to become a dog handler because I always wanted to work with animals,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”