Thank you for reading my latest blog post, “Part 8: The Changes Needed To Support Healing & Remove The Stigma Of PTSD.” This post will cover my position on the systemic changes required within emergency service organisations to promote the wellbeing and recovery of operational and frontline members. It will also cover my unique perspective (having experienced this first hand) on the changes needed to best support retired emergency service personnel, as they re-integrate back into the community as driven and purpose-filled civilians.
Firstly, there has been some delay in between writing Part 7: PTSD Relapse & Recovery and this post. I have been diligently creating a suite of services and programs designed to promote the well-being of emergency service personnel and remove the stigma associated with mental health. There will be more on these exciting health promotion programs further in this blog post!
Systemic changes needed to support the healing and recovery of current serving emergency service personnel
Emergency Service and First Response work is, without question, a highly stressful occupation. When compared to other industries and the general public, emergency service personnel face a significantly increased likelihood of experiencing high-risk situations, violence and a prolonged exposure to traumatic events (source: Phoenix Australia). Consequently, the cumulative toll of this exposure dramatically and negatively impacts the mental health and overall well-being of emergency service workers.
Before you continue reading, let me just preface the next few paragraphs with the statement – I loved my job as a Police Officer. I worked with many professional and diligent officers and together we achieved some incredible results which had a profound impact on the lives and the safety of Queensland citizens. However, there were many broad systemic issues at play which plagued my mental health and my ability to continue performing the work I loved so much.
As stated in my second blog, ‘Part 2: Owning my PTSD story’, there are over 80,000 full-time emergency service workers who perform a vital role in protecting and providing emergency assistance to other citizens in Australia. Approximately 10% of all emergency service workers have or will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but it is thought that these numbers may actually be higher due to the rate of undisclosed or undiagnosed PTSD.
As someone who has lived in the emergency service world and also diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I can attest that the numbers are sadly significantly higher than those reported. In my experience, most emergency service personnel who encounter mental health difficulties, do not report or receive the assistance they desperately need for fear of not knowing how to navigate the process, fear of vulnerability, the stigma associated with mental health and how it may negatively affect their careers.
To add to the trauma and increased exposure to violence and aggression, emergency service workers are also unprotected from the toxic workplace and systemic issues that have been ingrained into the culture of the profession. In some (not all…depending on the awareness and emotional intelligence of senior management) circumstances frontline staff are subjected to bureaucratic management styles, unjust decision-making and poor consultation, shifting priorities (depending on whether it was an election year or what the flavour of the month was) and an insensitivity and lack of emotional intelligence to the personal distress of Officers. The operational requirements of the job, shift work and erratic long hours also have an impact on the mental health of Officers.
So, with the overwhelming knowledge that emergency work is a bloody tough job and more often than not there is a lack of support from management and a number of troubling systemic issues at play, how do you survive and thrive as an emergency service worker? Below are a number of strategies that I wish existed when I was experiencing difficulties in the Police Service and when I was transitioning into life, in the community, after Policing.
Services I wished existed whilst serving as an operational emergency service worker
Debriefing is a commonly used term in the Emergency Services and is a powerful and tangible source of support after a critical incident has occurred. A debrief is an honest, open and supportive dialogue between colleagues which allows those involved to reflect and process an event or trauma, validate experiences and responses to incidents, and provides a forum to bring about closure and where appropriate, referral to other support services who may be able to further assist. Debriefing is practiced formally – structured individual or team group sessions or more commonly, informally – comfortable environment, impromptu setting such as after work drinks, cafe, outings, exercising, walking etc.
Unfortunately, other than my time as a Plain Clothes Investigator in the Child Protection and Investigation Unit where I received amazing support from my Detective Sergeant and Officer In Charge, myself and a number of Uniformed Officers did not receive regular and timely debriefing.
After arriving first on the scene to murders, suicides, sexual assaults and fatal traffic crashes there was a limited acknowledgement from senior staff that regular debriefing, especially after a critical incident, was absolutely necessary for staff morale and wellbeing.
In fact, I recall on multiple occasions that I (during my uniform policing days I only had 1 – 3 years operational experience) and other more junior staff, would host impromptu debriefing sessions after work (usually with a beer in hand) with those on the front line after a critical incident. We knew that we needed the support of each other, and if we weren’t going to receive the support from above, we were going to provide it to each other.
I firmly believe that if emergency service organisations want to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their staff, reduce instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and ensure the longevity of the careers of those who work on the frontline, debriefing needs to be widely practiced and well documented in the policy and culture of the organisation. It can’t just be done by a few and practiced every now and again. It needs to be a strategic and widely applied conversational intervention throughout the entire organisation.
It’s ok to see an external mental health professional
Within the Queensland Police Service, there is a professional and registered Psychologist, referred to as the Human Services Officer (HSO). Each major region has a psychologist appointed and they can be deployed as a great resource to staff. I have nothing but admiration for mental health professionals, especially those who choose to use their expertise assisting emergency service workers.
However, there is a fundamental lack of trust and an absolute fear that whatever said to this psychologist would ultimately find its way back to Senior Management and have negative career implications, as the Police Service Psychologist was on the Police Service payroll. Many who sought the services (myself included) of the HSO, would withhold certain details about an event, the emotions & thoughts associated with trauma exposure and not receive the true therapeutic benefits and ultimately the healing associated with talk therapy.
At no stage was I informed that I could seek the services of a mental health professional, external to the Police Service. At the time I was 23 years old and very naive about understanding my own mental health and navigating the Medicare Mental Health Treatment Plan process (see blog post Part 4: My Toolkit – Resources for PTSD Survivors & Their Families for more information)
If a mental health specialist is not the right fit for you and you don’t feel comfortable accessing their services, it’s important to note that you can see another professional. This professional can absolutely be someone external to your organisation, and you can trust that unless you or another is in imminent danger, all conversations are confidential and protected. The option of seeking external support for mental health difficulties should be widely promoted within the emergency services.
The knowledge it’s ok to be vulnerable
When I put on my ‘suit of blue’ I knew I had to be a brave and unbroken individual. I was there to support Queensland citizen’s through the worst times in their life. Loss, grief, injury, death – these were things that I’d have to bear on a daily basis, all the while telling myself to keep my emotions in check. There was (and unfortunately still is) an undeniable culture of having to be unbreakable, macho and ‘Teflon’. A police officer is strong, resilient and unwavering in their ability to get on with the job. When there is such an entrenched culture of being steadfast in the face of adversity, it’s incredibly difficult to recognise when you need assistance and when your mental health is taking a hit.
When an emergency service worker experiences difficulties with their mental health it’s, unfortunately, a very easy transition into feeling weak, broken, and inept at performing their duties. When this is the case there exists a culture of don’t ask and don’t tell – don’t ask if someone needs assistance and don’t tell if you do. Once again, there were some who were absolutely the exception to the rule and always went above and beyond to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of others. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, it’s ‘chin up’ and ‘you’ll be right’.
There is actually great courage in taking the tremendous leap of faith and discussing difficulties you may be experiencing with your mental health. To me, that’s what true strength looks like. To stare your challenges in the face and know that you want to progress forward, but you may require professional assistance to do so. I once looked at my PTSD diagnosis and the traumatic events that caused the diagnosis as ones that broke me. I now look at them as ones who made me who I am today and admire the strength I had to stick up my hand and ask for help.
To aide in being vulnerable, asking for assistance and remove the stigma of mental health, I firmly believe that referrals to holistic health and support services are required to remain a functioning and healthy emergency service worker. We so often would refer Queensland citizens to ‘Supportlink’, a multifaceted referral agency that would form a ‘wrap around’ care team system for the mental health, physical health, emotional health and spiritual health of those affected by crime, grief, trauma, loss etc. My question is, why does this service not exist for emergency service workers who experience similar and on some level, significantly deeper, traumatic events? If this service does exist in certain organisations for emergency service workers, why does it not exist in all emergency service agencies? It sure wasn’t available for me to use as a Police Officer fighting to understand and transition through my mental health difficulties! Organisations who, in the course of their business deal trauma on a regular basis, need to make holistic health services available to all employees.
I also strongly advocate that encouraging a culture of openness about mental health, continuing valuable conversations around your own mental health and the mental health of others would be exceptionally useful strategies in removing the perceived and entrenched stigma of mental health within emergency service organisations.
Moving forward – how to support these changes needed to heal and remove the stigma of mental health
My pursuit is to empower everyday people to transition through their mental health difficulties utilising case management services, evidence-based interventions and the profoundly powerful impact of mental health regulation through exercise.
I am incredibly passionate about changing the stigma that surrounds mental health, raising the profile of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and empowering those who suffer from the debilitating mental health challenges to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover.
To realise these pursuits and to best assist those I intend to serve, I have created a suite of professional mental health services, designed to educate, inspire and empower the many who experience mental health difficulties:
You don’t have to do it alone.
Survive and thrive in the emergency services
Private 1:1 counselling
Fitness Coaching Services
Private 1:1 and small group fitness coaching services
Through these programs, I intend to serve those affected by trauma and who experience mental health difficulties through a platform of powerful conversations, necessary interventions, innovation and service. If you would like to know more about these programs or how I may be able to assist you or someone you love and care about, please get in contact.
Finally, if you know someone who is experiencing mental health difficulties, be the support that they need to open up and start a meaningful conversation about their mental health. Let’s continue the conversation and end the mental health stigma!
As always, here are a range of emergency contacts who can assist if you are experiencing immediate difficulties with your mental health –
Seeking Help for PTSD
Credit: Black Dog Institute
If your life is in danger call emergency services:
- Australia – 000
- New Zealand – 111
Lifeline Counselling (24 /7)
- Australia – 13 1114
- New Zealand – 0800 543 354
Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467
You can also: talk to someone you trust, visit a hospital emergency department, contact your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
How To Show Your Support
If you are reading this blog and engaging with the content I’m sharing, thank you. Your subscription to this forum is incredibly humbling and I definitely appreciate your time and energy. If you feel inclined to do so, I ask that you continue to support this forum by one of the options below.
- Help me in my goal of raising awareness of PTSD and support options and my journey by subscribing to this blog, sharing it with your friends and social media platforms.
- If you know of someone who is going through a tough time, have the empathy and the courage to start a meaningful conversation that could truly change or save their life.
- If you wish to support my participation in my ultra-marathon event you can do so by making a donation through my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 until 1 August 2018. Funds raised through this platform will help to offset the significant preparation costs in representing Australia on the world stage as I run to raise the profile of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Pledge a donation to Phoenix Australia: Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health via my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 as well. Your support means more than you realise, not only myself but to others who endure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Thank you for reading and for being an integral part of changing the face of mental health.
Yours in health,