The Block star reveals depression battle during police days

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Damo Neal took on one of TV’s toughest battles, when he competed in an early season of The Block.

But in private, he was facing a much greater challenge – depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an interview with ONE News Now, Mr Neal has spoken publicly for the first time about how he "lost touch with reality" during his decade-long career as a frontline police officer.

Damo Neal was a contestant and crowd favourite on the first series of The Block NZ, alongside then-wife Jo.

Damo Neal was a contestant and crowd favourite on the first series of The Block NZ, alongside then-wife Jo.

Source: Facebook/Jo and Damo

"I just lost empathy for people. I became a robot. It was about arresting people and giving out tickets. I lost the feeling of achieving anything, or helping anyone."

Mr Neal chose to open up about his experiences after hearing former police negotiator Lance Burdett describe his own mental struggle on TV ONE's SUNDAY programme last night.

As New Zealand's top police negotiator, Lance Burdett was in the business of saving lives. But he faced a private battle that nearly destroyed his own life.
Source: Sunday

Mr Neal joined the police at 26, after three years in the military.

Within 18 months, he was on the nightshift by himself, patrolling small towns. He had to deal with late-night tragedies, like suicides and road deaths, alone.

"I went to one suicide where the guy was my age. It worried me. I became anxious about things. I went and sought help through a psychiatrist."

After two years in the force, Mr Neal started taking antidepressants, which helped to "numb" his emotions. He believed taking pills was "the only way" he would be able to deal with the trauma of police work.

"I was 28, so I was worrying about my career. You don't want to be known as a weak person, because you think you won’t be promoted."

Police paid for counselling. He says there was a support structure in place, but it wasn't easy to be open about what he was going through.

"Do you expect a male police officer to ring up his boss and say 'I've got a problem'? That's just not going to happen. It’s the Kiwi male mentality. Just because we wear a uniform, that doesn't make us any different."

Mr Neal enjoyed working in the police, and had hoped to have a long career.

You don't want to be known as a weak person"
Damo Neal

"I loved the job. You get awesome opportunities, and the staff are awesome. I don't regret joining the police at all."

However, working as a rural officer, Mr Neal had a personal connection with many of the victims he came into contact with – and that made the job even more challenging.

He believes young cops should be given "mandatory" mental health assessments on a regular basis, to check whether they are in a good frame of mind, and have the right tools to deal with the demanding nature of the work.

He would also like to see better follow-up after major traumatic incidents.

"I’m not blaming police. I’m not saying it’s their fault. I’m just saying, you’ve got young people who join the police, who haven’t experienced this kind of thing before.

"They need to be educated about what depression is. They need to be told, 'These are the signs; this is what you should do. And if you talk about it, you’re not going to lose your career'."

Mr Neal contemplated leaving the police after dealing with two horrific car accidents in Feilding. He knew one of the families involved.

"My option was to stay on the [antidepressant] medication and hope for the best, or to try and create a new life."

A turning point came after he spent four months away from the police, while filming The Block, which aired in 2014.

"I was like, 'Wow, there is another side of life, and I haven't seen this for a while'."

He continued to experience depression, and says his "constant lack of emotion and anxiety" ultimately led to the breakup of his relationship with wife Jo, who competed alongside him on The Block.

Mr Neal left the police, and is now completing an adult apprenticeship. He will soon be qualified as an electrician.

He stopped taking antidepressants eight months ago.

"I'm heaps better. I have normal emotions now. The whole time I was in the police, I couldn’t cry – but now I can. I still worry about things, but it’s manageable."

Police support

SUNDAY asked police about how they manage staff welfare for last night's programme.

Police replied: "There is no question that policing is a challenging and demanding role, and the wellbeing of our staff is a priority.

"We have a range of welfare options available including welfare officers in each district, access to confidential counselling services and active monitoring of workloads throughout the organisation."

Police say they provide extra support for staff in particularly challenging roles, and offer additional services after critical incidents.

If Damo’s story has raised any issues for you, and you’d like to speak to someone, phone Lifeline on 0800 543 354.

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