Strengthening the thin blue line

In November last year, a landmark survey that painted an in-depth picture of mental health in police and emergency services was launched by Beyond Blue. The survey Answering the call found that one in three police and emergency services employees experience high or very high psychological distress – compared to one in eight Australian adults.


The report also found that 40% of employees are diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetime – double the rate of the general population – and over half of employees experienced a traumatic event while on the job that deeply affected them. People 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 men and women with less than two years’ service.


Statistics like these highlight the importance of police and emergency services having robust and rigorous mental health frameworks in place to support employees who experience trauma and mental illness as a result of their work.


In recent years, Phoenix Australia has worked with many police organisations across Australia, to carry out reviews of mental health frameworks, practices and services. Phoenix Australia has also helped to develop and deliver training to employees.


“In the past couple of years, we’ve seen some important initiatives that have increased our understanding of what is going on for Australian police and emergency services,” explains Nicole Sadler, Head of Policy and Service Development with Phoenix Australia. One of these was the Beyond Blue report and another was the Senate Inquiry into the mental health conditions experienced by first responders, delivered earlier this year.


Phoenix Australia has a long history of working with military populations, and Nicole says there are many similarities between the experiences of members of the military and members of the police and emergency services.


“These services have professional and dedicated workforces. People generally do these jobs because they believe in what they are doing, and they have an intrinsic sense of wanting to serve the community. And we classify these jobs as high-risk because people are at risk of being exposed to things that are difficult and potentially traumatic as an inevitable and predictable part of the work they do,” she says.


Trauma exposure and organisational and occupational factors like shift work, fatigue, having to make time-critical decisions and how people feel about their leadership and management can also play a role in the development of mental health issues. Nicole says cumulative trauma is also important to recognise.


Earlier this year, Nicole and Professor David Forbes, the Director of Phoenix Australia, were invited to meet with Australian and New Zealand police commissioners to discuss Phoenix Australia’s work with the military and how the learnings could be applied across police organisations.


Police organisations know they expose their staff to difficult experiences, and they are concerned about that. They want to know what can be done for their workforce. Advising on mental health screening and training people who are exposed to trauma on an ongoing basis are aspects of the work we do with the police,”

says Nicole Sadler, Head of Policy and Service Development


“We have also seen gains where we have been able to work with organisations and look at things more holistically. How do we support the organisation, how do we help leadership and middle management and provide them with knowledge and tools? And how do we help the workforce know how to look after themselves and their colleagues?”


Examples of Phoenix Australia’s work includes working with Victoria Police and The Police Association to develop a smartphone app to help police officers and employees and their families monitor their mental health, wellbeing and sleep. As well as strengthening physical, emotional and social wellbeing, it puts people in touch with sources of support if they need it. This app has been implemented across Australian police organisations.


Nicole says ensuring that training and tools are culturally sensitive and relevant is important to gain buy-in from the people who need help.
“You need to provide support they are willing to access – people are easily put off from seeking formal support if they think providers don’t understand what it is like to serve with the police and don’t understand the stresses they face,” she says.


“Police organisations are taking the issues of mental health and wellbeing of members very seriously. They are trying to work out the best strategies and introduce changes that may take some years to implement, but there is genuine interest and concern about wellbeing in the police workforces.”