PTSD is a debilitating and often chronic mental health condition associated with high levels of distress. It is usually triggered by exposure to traumatic situations and can arise from a single event, such as an assault, accident or natural disaster, and from prolonged and repeated trauma, such as ongoing domestic and family violence, war or severe political repression. It affects many sectors of society: the military, first responders, journalists who report trauma and may also be exposed to threat, people who have lived with domestic and family violence, refugees in indefinite detention, people from indigenous communities dealing with historical and current trauma, prison populations and victims of violent crime.
It is estimated that PTSD affects 1.5 million Australians and a further 3-4 million family members who live with the condition. The scope and scale of the problem is immense in terms of both human suffering — people with PTSD are at increased risk of self-harm and suicide — and the social and economic costs of the poor mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, violence, family disruption and lost productivity which can be associated with it.
While symptoms of PTSD are similar across all sufferers, they can result from many different contexts, which require different approaches to recovery. The topic is far reaching and, if tackled in its entirety, overwhelming. For this reason, our initial focus is on PTSD in the first responder community, where there is an urgent need to address current knowledge gaps. There are a range of challenges and framework issues within first responder organisations which also need to be addressed.
Australia21’s report, When Helping Hurts: PTSD in first responders, contains many recommendations. While all are important, implementation will take time. We have identified the key priorities as:
- Within the broader context of growing community understanding that mental illness is not in any sense, a marker of a genetically inferior being but a response to life challenges that we all face, normalising attitudes to post-traumatic stress in first responder organisations and clarifying what happens when people seek help.
- Normalising attitudes to post-traumatic stress in first responder organisations and clarifying what happens when people seek help.
- Developing WH&S guidelines which outline the preferred or expected limits of exposure during normal operations.
- Ensuring, as far as is reasonably possible, that impacted personnel receive, in a timely way, the right treatment for the right illness.
- Implementing a case-managed return to work process for affected personnel, without financial penalty.
- Supporting impacted personnel in dealing with compensation claims.
- Introduction of the major policy changes outlined in Recommendation 30, including the introduction of a Canadian-style presumption in workers’ compensation legislation. Introduction of people management and mental wellbeing training for first responder managers.
- Establishment of collaborative arrangements to build on work already done, including in Defence, to share good practice across jurisdictions and to advocate for improved treatment and policy options in the interests of all first responders.
IN NOVEMBER 2018, Australia21 provided evidence on our recommendations to a Senate Inquiry into the mental health of first responders.
IN OCTOBER 2018, Australia21 briefed business and state first responder agencies on our findings and recommendations.
IN July 2018, the Northern Territory Minister for Police, Business and Innovation, met with Mr Palmer to discuss and consider the ways in which the findings and recommendations of our report could be applied to the significant issues of domestic and social violence in many remote communities in the NT.
IN JUNE 2018, When Helping Hurts: PTSD in First Responders was launched in three jurisdictions to ensure the widest possible and most diverse focus and emphasis on the issue of stress related trauma in the workplace: the federal and international jurisdiction of the Australian Federal Police; the large-metropolitan, high-population responsibilities of the Victoria Police; and the remote-area and vast distance challenges facing the Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services.
Australia21 was also invited to present on the report and its recommendations to the Melbourne University Medical Students’ Annual Conference in June, which we did in company with the AFP Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders.
IN MAY 2017, Australia21 held a day-long roundtable at Australian Federal Police Headquarters in Canberra, under the chairmanship of former AFP Commissioner Mick Palmer. This Roundtable was run in partnership with Fearless Outreach and led to the report When Helping Hurts. It was co-funded by the Australian Federal Police, Victoria Police and Northern Territory Police, Fire & Emergency Services, without them exercising any editorial control.
IN 2016, Australia21 released a volume of short essays, Trauma-related stress in Australia: Essays by leading Australian thinkers and researchers, in collaboration with FearLess Outreach. This volume was written by psychiatrists and psychologists, people who have lived with the effects of trauma-related stress and their families, administrators of frontline organisations including police, Defence personnel and those who have observed the havoc it produces in disadvantaged communities. The purpose of the essays was to stimulate broad community understanding of the relationship between trauma and mental health and the need for better structured mental health systems with improved prevention and treatment options.
When Helping Hurts: PTSD in first responders: http://australia21.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/When-Helping-Hurts-PTSD-in-First-Responders-WEB.pdf
Trauma-related stress in Australia: Essays by leading Australian thinkers and researchers: http://australia21.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/FINAL-Trauma-Related-Stress-2016-09-07.pdf