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A castle of regeneration for France’s burned-out security officers

Gaëlle Le Roux, FRANCE 24 | The Courbat castle in Liège, France, is a centre for first responders suffering from stress disorders.

The Courbat castle welcomes French security officers and first responders suffering from burnout or post-traumatic stress. Exactly three years after the deadly Paris attacks, they testify to the increasing strains on the job.

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There’s something stark about the place. Perhaps it’s the almost monastic stillness around the 17th century French castle surrounded by a moat. Perhaps it’s the ghostly silhouettes crossing the courtyard on a misty November morning.

It’s 9am at the Anas-Le Courbat health center in Liège, a small town in France’s central Indre-et-Loire region. The morning bell breaks the silence in this rural idyll: it’s roll-call time for the 50 patients at the Courbat castle. The day is about to begin.

In this stone castle in the middle of corn fields, police officers, soldiers, firefighters, prison guards and other security officials come to heal from the state of exhaustion or post-traumatic stress of their jobs. The centre also has a detox programme for addictions - mostly alcoholism among police officers. Sometimes they’re here for all of the above. "They are preparing to return to normal life here," explains Sarah Trotet, the director of the centre. While most of the patients at the Courbat are security officials, there are also a few "civilians". They share a common malediction, "a state of advanced physical and mental deterioration," as the centre’s caregivers put it.

Gaëlle Le Roux

‘Moral exhaustion’

On the frontlines of France’s fight against terrorism, in demand since the deadly 2015 Charlie Hebdo and November 13 Paris attacks, many security service officials are simply exhausted.

This summer, a parliamentary inquiry commission released an alarming report on the issue, describing a police force in crisis due to the combined stress of the frequent terror plots, the migrant crisis and punishing work conditions. The report noted a state of "moral exhaustion" – especially in the police force. Long hours, dangerous beats, outdated equipment and increased administrative duties have all put strains on the police force and are partly to blame for the high suicide rate in the services, which is 36 percent higher than the national average, the report found.

Although the pathologies suffered by patients at the Courbat castle are not solely due to professional difficulties, their discussions about their jobs are a testimony to the malaise that prevails among the women and men responsible for ensuring France’s safety.

At the centre, it’s hard to get people to open up. But when they do, they spill out a torrent of disillusionment. "Disappointment," "loss of meaning," "extreme fatigue," "discouragement," "the impression of being nothing more than a number" are frequently heard. The castle is a virtual magnifying mirror of the evils that are eating away at the police force.

"The system is a machine to wreck cops," explains Moïse. A policeman for 20 years, Moïse spent 15 years in the heart of tough, high-crime neighbourhoods in southern France. He is now dealing with long term post-traumatic stress disorder and an addiction - "they go well together," he quips.

In two decades on the beat, Moïse appears to have seen it all. "For 15 years, I've seen guys get wasted. We do not realise how much it's all about us, we think it's just part of the job," he says. More than once, Moïse was surprised to find himself "crying behind the steering wheel” of his police car. "It was my only outlet,” he explains. “In the police force, we do not help the weak."

Moïse describes some of the harrowing sights he’s witnessed in his career: tiny, blood-soaked footsteps of children of a murdered mother, the last breath of a young man riddled with bullets in his car... scenes etched in his memory that refuse to be washed away with time.

Then there are the stories about the lack of resources: "We arrived at the site with two bullet-proof vests for five of us,"the politics of numbers and the innumerable transfer requests that were never granted. They all melted down to a single tenet: "Nobody cares." Bit by bit, Moïse found himself sinking. Finally, a personal blow led to an all-time low and with it, a wake-up call. "There are a lot of suicides in the police, I preferred to come [here] before that."

‘You have to give me orders’

The Courbat, a stone castle nestled in an 80-hectare park surrounded by fields, forests and ponds, is unique in France. Founded in the early 1950s by the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécuité), France’s anti-riot police force, the centre began as a sanatorium for members and is a unique institution in the country. In the early 2000s, the castle opened to the general public, but it is still a public utility service managed by the national security services association, ANAS (Association Nationale d’Action Sociale des Personnels de la Police et du Ministere de l’Interieur).

The uniqueness of the centre, a direct legacy of its history, lies in its physical fitness programme, tailored to each patient's capabilities, in addition to traditional therapies conducted by psychologists and physicians. "A healthy mind is a healthy body is a cliché, but it is true everyday here," says Stéphane Rolland, professor of adapted physical education. "My role is to pull patients out of difficulty without them giving up."

Gaëlle Le Roux

The care and activities at the Courbat revolves around this idea: to regain self-esteem. Gardening, sports and relaxing activities -- such as looking after the few goats on the premises and art classes -- are some of the programmes available. The idea is to push the patients without allowing them to slip since they are all in a fragile state.

Elsa Clément, a team leader, knows something about it. Her creative workshop, "a little bubble outside the care provided in a white coat," is aimed at building confidence. Patients try anything from sculpture to sketching or painting – activities that are not the norm for security officials. "The people who come here are sometimes nothing more but their work," she explains. "One day, when I asked a gendarme [policeman] to choose an activity, he replied, 'Don’t ask me to choose, you have to give me orders.’"

Gaëlle Le Roux

For these patients, the Courbat is a cocoon. "I’m leaving boosted. I feel healthy," says Moïse. He has discovered two passions: riding and pyrography, the art of wood-burning. Moïse is set to leave the centre at the end of the month. But he will be returning with some apprehension to his police station, where there have been rumours about his hospitalisation. “I’ve been typecast,” he explains.

In barracks and police stations, depression remains a taboo. Yet, "there is more and more consideration for psychological illnesses, even in these professions," says Gilda Bichon, a clinical psychologist.

The Courbat, which is struggling to mend these broken souls, is now trying to accentuate prevention. "We have developed a partnership with the national police training school,” says Trotet, "Every year, a delegation of future police commissioners and lieutenants come here, so that they can spot and recognise the signs of addiction, burnout and post-traumatic stress, that's how conditions will improve.”

<span lang="EN-US">This piece has been adapted from the original, which appeared in French.</span>

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