The Block star reveals depression battle during police days

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.

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

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.

"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."

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 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.

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."

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

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

"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.



Around 360 Glenorchy homes still without power 48 hours after early spring snowfall

The Glenorchy township in Central Otago is still without power 48 hours after a spring snowfall caused major disruptions in the deep south.

Around 360 households have been affected.

Aurora Energy is hoping to have power restored to the area by this evening.

Around 360 households in the central Otago town are affected, with Aurora Energy hoping to have electricity back on by this evening. Source: Breakfast

In many places power was cut, schools were closed and flights cancelled. Source: 1 NEWS


Watch: Artist uses pyramid in central Auckland to spread some joy around town

A Kiwi artist are architect is using a pyramid in central Auckland to spread some joy.

Matt Liggins has made it his mission to ask people what makes them smile, but instead of rolling up to you on the street he's built a pyramid to help lighten people's moods.

TVNZ1's Seven Sharp's Lucas de Jong went along to take a look and share a laugh in the video above.

Matt Liggins has made it his mission to ask Kiwis what makes them smile. Source: Seven Sharp

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Meet the transgender Wellington school caretaker brightening up kids' days

A transgender caretaker at a Wellington school has been using her musical talents to brighten up the kids' days.

Molly Mason was born as Michael, but soon discovered she was a female born in a man's body.

"I believe I'm a woman, and I associate as a woman, so I live my life as a woman," Molly told TVNZ1's Seven Sharp.

Molly has a love of music that began when she was just six.

Now, in her role as caretaker at a Wellington school, she uses her talent to good effect by beat boxing with the kids at lunchtime.

"When I realised that beat boxing and making sounds was something I couldn't live without, that was it, nothing else mattered."

However, to be this woman - that little boy Michael, had a fight on his hands.

"I got bullied from primary school right through until the day I left college and left Blenheim."

Molly is now proud to be transgender and says the stage is her safe place. She performs as her drag alter ego called Bette Noir.

"Anything that makes me sad, makes me worried, makes me scared, anything that I find stressful, it's not there, it's gone." 

Seven Sharp’s Arrun Soma spoke with Molly Mason. Source: Seven Sharp


Ministry of Justice union members strike, launching a month of industrial action over pay

Court security officers and Family Court coordinators are among Ministry of Justice employees going on strike for two hours nationwide today as they start more than four weeks of industrial action over pay.

Ministry of Justice members of the Public Service Association will strike from 10.30am to 12.30pm today.

PSA National Secretary Glenn Barclay said on Monday that eleventh hour meetings were held between the PSA Bargaining Team and Ministry of Justice to reach a resolution but no movement on fundamental pay issues was offered.

He said the union is seeking an outcome that ensures members including court security officers, registry officers, victim advisors, court reporters and Family Court coordinators are reasonably paid. 

The ministry’s own engagement survey shows that only a third of staff feel valued for the work that they do, with a clear impact on recruitment and retention issues across the ministry, Mr Barclay said. 

He said the ministry offered the third lowest average salary in the public sector last year and the PSA believes this is being worsened. 

As well as strike action today, the employees will ban overtime, only work contracted hours of work and take common breaks until October 19 "to push for fair pay systems and a modest across-the-board pay increase," Mr Barclay said.

Kaitaia, New Zealand - August 18, 2014: Kaitaia District/Family Court outdoor sign and symbol. It is the most northern District Court in new zealand
Kaitaia District Court. Source: istock.com