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Mental health a daily battle for many emergency service workers, Senate inquiry told

Many first responders still struggle with the perceived shame of speaking out. Photo: ABC News/Henry Zwartz
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Emergency service workers must face trauma on a daily basis, but entrenched institutional stigma stops them from accessing the mental health support they need, a Senate inquiry in Queensland has heard.

Union representatives and support groups are among those who have voiced concerns at a Brisbane hearing of the inquiry into high rates of mental health conditions experienced by frontline employees.

Veteran firefighter Mick Willis from the United Firefighters Union of Australia said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was an everyday reality for many in the field.

“It was brought into sharp focus in November 2015. We had two suicides in 48 hours at the same station,” he said.

The Police Union said an institutional shift was needed to openly discuss officer mental health. Photo: ABC News

Mr Willis said the role of firefighters had shifted and they were often the first on scene to deal with life-threatening incidents.

“Firefighters are very well trained … but you can’t condition them from the accumulated exposure to the trauma,” he said.

“You’ve got to go home and pretend you’re a happy father or a happy mother.

“We used to have a bit of a joke about the old firefighter who would turn to the bottle … he’d drink a bit and then drink himself to death.

“The reality is he was actually self-medicating.”

PTSD was an everyday reality for many, the Firefighters Union said. Photo: ABC News/Jonathan Hair

‘A need to talk openly’ about mental health

Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers said there was a perception among officers that reporting a mental health condition would create roadblocks in their career.

“By nature of being a police officer you don’t trust anybody — or as [behavioural scientist] Dr [Kevin] Gilmartin says, if you do trust people you won’t survive, and you’ll end up dead,” he said.

Mr Leavers said there needed to be an institutional shift within the police force to embrace an open dialogue about mental health.

But he said injury management advisers were overloaded with cases and there were greater barriers to accessing support in regional and remote Queensland.

“If [we] cannot support people on the front line, we are failing people on the front line,” he said.

Mr Willis said support services had come along way, but many first responders still struggled with the perceived shame of speaking out.

“There’s still that stigma — in emergency services we’re supposed to be bulletproof,” he said.

The Senate inquiry is due to hear submissions from all states by the end of September.

ABC

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