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The Australian Federal Police (AFP), Victoria Police and Northern Territory Police, Fire & Emergency Services have joined with Australia21 and FearLess Outreach to launch Australia’s first report on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Australia’s emergency responders.

When Helping Hurts: PTSD in First Responders explores more effective ways of preventing the debilitating consequences of traumatic stress, and improving mental health outcomes for front-line responders.

The landmark report and its recommendations are the result of extensive research and high-level Roundtable discussions over a year involving federal, state and territory police, along with fire, ambulance and emergency services, defence personnel, health care professionals, mental health support services, specialist academics and media first responders.

Australia21 Chair Paul Barratt says the report highlights that three to four million Australians live with PTSD, or have family affected by it.

“PTSD has far reaching impacts across the entire community and it will take a whole-of-community approach to achieve better outcomes for those living with PTSD. This report shows the need for cultural change across the community, along with legislative change and improvements at a managerial and medical level,” he says.

“We need cultural change to acknowledge that it’s a normal consequence to be affected by what first responders see and do in their line of work, and that it’s normal to seek support if you feel you need it, and it’s normal to get better as a result of treatment.”

Former AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer says the collaboration on the project was full, frank, open and courageous.

“There was no turf protection, defensiveness, blame or ‘ball passing’, just a commitment to fully explore the reality of the current state of play and what needs to be done to better prepare, protect and manage the people exposed to the inevitable reality of trauma in the workplace, as part of the job we expect and need them to do,” he says.

Police respond with new commitment

Australian Federal Police Acting Commissioner Leanne Close welcomes the report, which was sponsored by the AFP, Victoria Police and Northern Territory Police, Fire & Emergency Services.

“The AFP has no greater asset than its people. This report acknowledges the work our men and women do to help the community can harm and traumatise. It can impact their health, their wellbeing and the friends and family around them,” says Acting Commissioner Close, who participated in the Roundtable.

“As leaders of impacted organisations where our staff are subject to inherently dangerous and traumatic work, we are committed to continuing to improve our preventative measures and response to mental health in our workforces. Many of the 31 recommendations and nine key priorities align with the work the AFP is already doing to improve the overall wellbeing of our members.”

Seven Victoria Police representatives also participated in the Roundtable, including Commander Shane Cole from the Health Safety and Deployment Division.

“The Roundtable and subsequent report are the first of their kind in Australia and have allowed us to share experiences and learnings with our counterparts in other agencies.

“In 2016 we accepted and commenced work on the recommendations of our own Victoria Police Mental Health Review, many of which align with the findings of this new report including better training for managers and leaders and a case management system for people with mental health issues.

“While we still have a way to go, it’s clear that Victoria Police is on the right path to improving the mental health of our organisation and supporting our people who give so much to the community,” he says.

NT Police, Fire & Emergency Services will launch the report locally next week.

Reality check

Australia21 is thankful that many first responder agencies acknowledge their frequent failure to deliver the appropriate level of care to members in need, and we appreciate their commitment to continuing to improve the quality of management and service delivery so present and former members suffering trauma related stress receive better support. There is a significant way to go, but the journey has clearly started. It is a critically important journey which must be completed.

“First responders run towards danger when others are running from it,” says Mick Palmer.

“We need to make sure we don’t meet the demands of the public and the politicians at the expense of our own people.”

When Helping Hurts: PTSD in first responders does not hide these realities. It is an open and honest account of what is happening to frontline personnel and what changes in attitudes and practices are needed to address the Occupational Health & Safety risks. Despite funding assistance, the sponsoring police did not get to edit this report.

It makes 31 recommendations, with the following priorities:

  1. Within the broader context of growing community understanding that mental illness is not a marker of a genetically inferior being but a response to life challenges that we all face, normalising attitudes to post-traumatic stress in first responder organisations and clarifying what happens when people seek help.

  2. Developing WH&S guidelines about the limits of exposure during normal operations.

  3. Ensuring impacted personnel receive, in a timely way, the right treatment for the right illness.

  4. Implementing a case-managed return to work process for affected personnel, without financial penalty.

  5. Supporting impacted personnel in dealing with compensation claims.

  6. Introduction of the major policy changes, including the introduction of a Canadian-style presumption in workers’ compensation legislation.

  7. Introduction of people management and mental wellbeing training for first responder managers.

  8. Establishment of collaborative arrangements to build on work already done, including in Defence, to share good practice across jurisdictions and to advocate for improved treatment and policy options in the interests of all first responders.

Australia21 urges the sponsors and other first responder organisations to make the report count.

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