DEVASTATING impacts and trauma from policing on members are coming to the fore this past month with the force rocked by member suicides and a spate of assaults on officers.
Speaking about these impacts, within ranks and publicly, has been a big shift to addressing mental health culture within the force, Ballarat Inspector Trevor Cornwill says. But police feeling confident and safe to speak up and seek help was crucial.
Encouragement to reach out has been an impassioned plea from Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton in the wake of three Victorian Police deaths by suicide a fortnight ago. At least five Australian Federal Police members completed suicide by mid-year.
Ballarat Superintendent Jenny Wilson spoke of the cumulative impact each road trauma and fatality can have on emergency services personnel when a man died in a fiery car crash on the Western Freeway last month.
Inspector Cornwill, who represents Ballarat police in a suicide prevention trial, said countless friends had left the police force in his 30 years' experience. The 10-year-mark was the average limit most could take in stress and with that, too often, was the niggling feeling you were not really fit for duty anymore.
Mindset, he said, was changing and this started at the top, most notably in Chief Commissioner Ashton taking six weeks' leave for exhaustion in late 2017.
Inspector Cornwill for so long stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress from prolonged exposure to trauma was buried under a culture to "suck it up" and keep doing your job. Asking for help was a sign of weakness.
He said the Victoria Police Mental Health Review had sparked an increase in support services, particularly for members in the highway patrol, dealing with road death and injury, and those in the sexual offences unit, who often confront child abuse, domestic violence and rape.
We wouldn't have done that years ago. Community as a whole has people talking about mental health more and it helps heaps to raise awareness.Inspector Trevor Cornwill
"We wouldn't have done that years ago. Community as a whole has people talking about mental health more and it helps heaps to raise awareness," Inspector Cornwill said. "Letting people know it's okay to seek help, by talking about it should not be frowned on or seen as weak. That's the same for the police."
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Inspector Cornwill said a key discipline for members was to have a self-help plan in place with a superior or peer-support officer to understand stress triggers. For example, making clear if you attend a fatality you might not want to talk about it that shift but prefer a check-in a couple of days later.
Records are now kept to track individual members each time they attend a traumatic event to ensure follow-ups that Inspector Cornwill said at the least aimed to help members feel valued and support if need.
Inspector Cornwill likened the accumulative effects of police work, like daily stresses, to filling a bucket. Each member was affected by stress in different ways and by different events but it was crucial to be aware of positive ways to alleviate stress before it built up too much.
Another method Victoria Police is trialling is a state government pilot program offering 13 weeks' immediate treatment for mental health injury, without members having to prove the injury was work-related. Alternate duties were also an option.
The program has also rolled out to other emergency services personnel, including triple-zero call-takers and frontline workers in corrections, child protection and public nursing.
Inspector Cornwill said this helped break the stigma within the force. Publicly, a lack of respect for the badge, with a rise in rammings and assaults on officers, prompted a Chief Commissioner Ashton to make a public cry.
"We all know policing is a hard job but you don't expect to be abused, punched, kicked or spat on at work," Inspector Cornwill said. "Members are exposed to that everyday. It's confronting to be assaulted."
Inspector Cornwill said research showed heightened levels of anxiety and adrenaline of a police officer were similar to a solider. He said this always flowed into home life, even if subconsciously.
Police support extends to veteran members and police families who feel ongoing ripple effects of the job. This broader reach of mental injury is why Inspector Cornwill said it was vital to keep promoting the right conversations as a community.
Shot 14 times, this policeman is turning violence in healing others
DERRICK McManus, the police officer shot 14 times in less than five seconds, will be speaking in Ballarat to help others facing adversity.
The South Australian Special Tasks and Rescue Group veteran will be special guest to launch the 2020 Walking Off the War campaign in Ballarat next month. Mr McManus draws on his career as a sniper, diver and counter-terrorist operative in what he looks at now as a healing career as a speaker and preventing violence.
He was shot with a high-powered semi-automatic rifle when carrying out an arrest warrant in May 1994 and returned to full duties two years later.
Walking Off the War Within raises awareness nationwide of post-traumatic stress and depression, particularly among emergency services and defence personnel.
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