Answering the call: Mental health in police and emergency services

Amanda Lyons

29/11/2018 2:32:26 PM

A new survey paints a vivid picture of how police, fire, ambulance and state emergency service employees are impacted by their profession.

Police and emergency workers often experience a toll on their mental health as a result of their profession. (Image: Qld Fire and Emergency)
Police and emergency workers often experience a toll on their mental health as a result of their profession. (Image: Qld Fire and Emergency)

This year’s Australian spring has already brought with it extreme weather and serious disaster conditions, with catastrophic bushfires raging through central Queensland and flash-flooding in Sydney that has resulted in three deaths.
Australia’s police and emergency services are on the frontlines of such disasters, and they can pay a heavy toll as a result; one of the deaths in Sydney was that of a volunteer State Emergency Services (SES) worker who collapsed on duty, while two police officers were injured by a falling tree as they assisted trapped motorists during the storm.
However, first responders and emergency service workers can also suffer a toll on their mental health, which is what Beyond Blue’s new survey Answering the call is designed to investigate.
‘This is a landmark piece of research, and I am delighted that almost every police and emergency services agency in Australia is participating,’ Ken Lay, Chair of Ambulance Victoria and also of the Answering the call advisory group, said. 
The survey gathered responses from more than 21,000 police, fire, ambulance and SES employees, including volunteer, retired and former personnel.
‘Never before have so many current and former police and emergency services personnel and volunteers been surveyed in such depth about their individual or organisational mental health,’ Beyond Blue Chief Executive Georgie Harman said.
‘The results will arm everyone with unprecedented national data and insights from those who serve to protect us and keep us safe.’
Some of the insights generated by the data may not seem unexpected, such as the fact that over half of the employees experienced a deeply-affecting traumatic event in the course of their work, or those who have served more than 10 years are significantly more likely to experience psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than colleagues with less than two years’ service.
But other findings, such as the fact that poor workplaces and culture are just as debilitating to workers as exposure to trauma, may be more surprising.
The survey also revealed systemic problems posing barriers to emergency workers’ mental health, such as the difficulty of navigating the worker’s compensation process for psychological injury.
It also showed concerning mental health statistics among police and emergency workers compared to non-emergency workers: one in three experience high or very high psychological distress compared to one in eight in the general population, and police and emergency workers are twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts and three times more likely to have a suicide plan.
There is also evidence that emergency workers could be well-served by receiving additional education and support about how to take care of their own mental health.
‘The findings suggest a significant portion of police and emergency services personnel still have poor mental health literacy,’ Lieutenant-Governor Lay said.
‘They aren’t recognising the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD in themselves.’
The Answering the call survey provides an important centrepiece for the final aspect of Beyond Blue’s overall study into the health and wellbeing of police and emergency services in Australia, which will involve creating and implementing practical strategies to tackle the issues identified through the research.
‘It is now everyone’s responsibility – governments, agencies, police and emergency services personnel and their families, unions and peak bodies, services and other stakeholders – to come together to convert this evidence into further action and lasting change,’ Ms Harman said.
‘Beyond Blue will support the sector to do this; to analyse and use the research findings to continue to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of police and emergency service personnel.’

Beyond Blue Disasters emergency medicine mental health

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