It’s easy to recognise and understand physical health problems when it’s for example a broken leg, food poisoning, or cancer. It’s easy to assist someone when there are physical symptoms to deal with.
Unlike physical problems, which we have been dealing with for centuries, mental health as a disease is a relative new subject to us in the emergency services field of work. Its not uncommon to find ourselves not knowing what to do and our friends and colleagues also not knowing how to recognise and deal with mental health problems. Unfortunately, even the medical fraternity is only now catching up on the growing problem in our industry.
This issue came to a head with me when I read a research paper on the mental health of police and emergency workers by Beyond Blue organisation.
More than 21,000 police, fire, ambulance and SES employees, volunteers and retired and former personnel took part in the 25-minute Answering the Call survey commissioned by Beyond Blue.
The survey found:
- One in three police and emergency services employees experience high or very high psychological distress compared to one in eight Australian adults;
- Over one in 2.5 employees and one in three volunteers are diagnosed with a mental health condition in their life, compared to one in five Australian adults;
- Employees and volunteers report suicidal thoughts over two times more often than adults in the general population and are three times more likely to have a suicide plan;
- Over half employees surveyed experienced a traumatic event during the course of their work that deeply affected them;
- Poor workplace practices and culture can be equally debilitating as exposure to trauma;
- Employees who have worked more than ten years in police and emergency services are almost twice as likely to experience psychological distress and six times more likely to have symptoms of PTSD compared to those with less than two years’ service;
- Three in four employees who had made a claim for psychological injury found the current workers’ compensation process to be detrimental to their recovery.
These were staggering results that need to be brought out into the open and talked about at all levels of an agency. A mentally healthy workplace is one that actively minimises risks to mental health, promotes positive mental health and wellbeing, is free of stigma and discrimination, and supports the recovery of workers with mental health conditions, for the benefit of the individual, organisation and community.
The objectives of a good Police and Emergency Services Program are to:
- Reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions, attempted suicide and suicide among police and emergency service personnel
- Increase the number of police and emergency service personnel taking action to manage their mental health and support colleagues they may be concerned about
- Increase the number and capability of police and emergency services organizations taking action to create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces
- Increase and improve the public awareness and appreciation of the unique and challenging role fulfilled by police and emergency service personnel.
There is so much to understand and do in this field that I can only touch on two issues that I think are essential for the individual to take action.
The role of family and social supports
The role of family and social supports in the mental health and wellbeing of first responders should not be underestimated. The demands of first responder roles are likely to impact on family life and personal relationships. Family members are often the first people to notice signs their loved one may be struggling.
Providing family members with information about what to expect in the first responder work context can help them understand the positive role they can play and how to best support their loved one through difficult times. By inviting family to be part of mental health promotion and education activities at work, first responder organisations can help to encourage a broader support system for workers and prepare them for eventual stresses they will encounter.
Reducing the mental health stigma
Tackling stigma is a fundamental step in promoting mental health and wellbeing in a first responder organisation. The stigma associated with experiencing mental health difficulties often deters people from seeking assistance. If left untreated, mental health difficulties can escalate and become more severe with potentially long-lasting consequences for the worker as well as impacting the organisation.
Many stigma-reduction initiatives cost nothing and simply require courage. Direct contact approaches (i.e. direct contact with people who have experienced a mental health condition and are in recovery) have proven to be the most effective strategy for reducing stigma. We must have zero-tolerance for discrimination against first responders who seek assistance for a mental health difficulty or have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Set clear expectations that behaviour which reinforces stigmas and stereotypes is not acceptable and outline how the organisation will respond.
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