Vietnam Veterans Day on 18 August is an opportunity for health practitioners to focus on how they can support the mental health of the 60,000 Australians who were deployed to Vietnam.
Being in the police force can offer an exciting and rewarding career with the opportunity to protect communities and help people in need. Most police love their job. But even a great job can have bad days.
A recent report found that over half of police and emergency service employees experienced a job-related traumatic event that deeply affected them, and 40 per cent of employees are diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetime, which is twice the rate of the general population. Phoenix Australia works with police organisations to help them increase their capability to support the mental health and wellbeing of their members.
Police can experience a range of potentially harmful stressors in relation to their work, such as responding to fatal accidents and attempted and completed suicides, exposure to death, serious injury, violence and aggression, and criminal or sexual offences with children. Additionally, there are potential stressors intrinsic to the role, such as shift work, fatigue, having to make time-critical decisions, and emotionally demanding situations, such as informing relatives of a sudden death.
Police agencies can take reasonable steps to minimise the potential adverse impacts of exposure to occupational stress and trauma starting with having an integrated and robust mental health strategy.
Benchmarking against best practice
Reviewing and benchmarking existing mental health and critical incident policies against best practice is often the starting point.
To gain a clear picture of an agency’s particular needs, surveys, focus groups and in-depth individual consultations of staff, managers, and executives are recommended. It’s important to start by conducting comprehensive reviews and assessing the strengths and gaps of existing policies, guidelines, screening and monitoring processes, and other practices and initiatives that are intended to support staff wellbeing. To increase mental health and wellbeing capability across the organisation, a suite of practices is often advised, which may include providing tailored training to sections of the workforce.
A whole-of-organisation approach
Ms Tilly Crozier, Senior Clinical Specialist at Phoenix Australia, explains that in working with police agencies, ”The approach we take is to look at the organisation as a whole and consider the needs of members at each stage of their employment – from recruitment, to mid-career, and through to their transition to retirement or civilian employment. At each time point, a person’s wellbeing needs are different, and we advise agencies to tailor their mental health strategy accordingly, rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all approach will be adequate.”
The strategy should include a focus on mitigating inherent risks in the workplace, increasing employees’ resilience through evidence-informed approaches to pre-incident preparedness and teaching coping strategies to use prior to, during and following exposure.
In keeping with the whole-of-organisation approach, Tilly notes the importance of looking at the needs of different levels of the workforce, uniformed and non-uniformed, as well as working with existing systems. She explains, “We work not only with management, but also with human resources staff, internal mental health and wellbeing teams, and peer support officers. By ‘helping the helper’ we can ensure that if and when an individual needs support, the support available to them is based on evidence and a stepped-care model of responding.”
Targeted training is an important element of increasing capability. Frontline staff may be trained in Psychological First Aid, which teaches them how to provide early practical and emotional support to their peers in the initial hours, days and weeks following a critical incident; or Trauma-Informed Care, which teaches them the importance of trauma-informed sensitive communication when dealing with the public. For mental health and wellbeing staff, training in evidence-based treatments may be needed, for treating diagnosable mental health disorders. To help embed learnings in everyday practice, supervision and consultation support can also be very valuable.
Clear pathways to care
Finally, any mental health strategy needs to lay out clear pathways to care for members who require mental health support. Tilly stresses the importance of making culturally sensitive support available: “We know that people who work in the emergency services are more likely to access support if they feel that the providers are well versed in service culture, in short, they want to know that the provider ‘gets’ them, and understands the nature of their work”.
While police agencies have a responsibility to minimise the likelihood of employees experiencing stress, trauma and psychological harm through their work, it is a responsibility they take seriously, with more and more agencies promoting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, identifying and addressing risk factors, and providing appropriate mental health support initiatives to those who need them. This is clear to us from the increasing number of requests Phoenix Australia is receiving to provide expert advice.
Understanding police culture
Phoenix Australia provides expert advice to high risk organisations such as police agencies. We have a strong track record in understanding police culture, the types of stressors members are exposed to, the barriers to getting mental health support, as well as understanding the evidence about what works in protecting and supporting the mental health of the workforce.
We provide advice tailored to the needs of police agencies, and over the years, agencies around the country have sought our specialised services. We can adapt or develop a tailored strategy that includes a roadmap for making adaptations as needs arise, and a process for evaluation and continuous improvement.
For Tilly Crozier, working with police organisations is very rewarding, “By helping to build the mental health capability of police and individuals who support the mental health needs of police members, we are working to bring down the confronting statistic of 40 per cent of police experiencing a mental health condition. And that will change a lot of lives”.