VICTORIA POLICE are implementing initiatives to improve not only the mental health of employees, but the communities they work within.
Mental illness is increasingly impacting communities, including to community safety and well-being. It is an increasing responsibility for police, too, who are responding to a surge in mental-health related calls each year.
And this region is not immune.
Every day that they pull on the blue suit, police officers put their lives on the line and respond to and investigate traumatic incidents - from road trauma to assaults, sexual offences, child abuse and suicides.
In the Moorabool police service area - which serves Moorabool, Golden Plains and Hepburn shires - an initiative was started to benefit not only police, but the wider community too.
Arriving in the region to work in the Moorabool Local Area Commander role in mid-2019, Inspector Damien Christensen discovered the impact mental illness was having on not only the police officers he was set to manage, but on the wider community they serve.
While Victoria Police has a Mental Health and Well-being Strategy and Action Plan (2017-2021) in place which highlights a need for cultural change to reduce stigma and encourage help seeking, a report released by Beyond Blue in November 2018 titled 'Answering The Call' provided a harrowing insight into the impact emergency service work has on those working in the sector.
Answering The Call was the first national survey focused on the mental health and well-being of police and emergency services, with 33 agencies participating. More than 21,000 current and former police and emergency service workers and volunteers from a range of ranks and locations participated.
The report found the emergency service workforce was 'deeply impacted, both by the nature of the work that they do and the pressures of the environments in which they work' and that the results compelled action.
While those surveyed indicated emergency service work was meaningful and rewarding, they also said it could be stressful and demanding.
While post traumatic stress disorder is estimated to affect about 4 per cent of adults in Australia and 8 per cent in the Australian Defence Force, about 10 per cent of emergency service employees surveyed were found to have probable PTSD.
This included 6 per cent in the state emergency service sector, 8 per cent in ambulance, 9 per cent in fire and rescue and 11 per cent in police.
Meanwhile, about 21 per cent of employees in the police and emergency services sector indicated they had high psychological distress, while 9 per cent reported experiencing very high psychological stress. These numbers do not reflect the rate for volunteers.
Inspector Christensen answered this call to action.
When he started working in the region he had a significant number of staff on WorkCover for mental health reasons.
He decided something needed to be done to ameliorate the situation - for not only for the members who needed to take time off due to what they experienced at work, but to prevent other members needing to take time off work for mental health reasons in the future.
I can look after my members, but if a crisis still exists in the community - whether it's domestic violence or whether it's mental health concerns - then my people have to respond to it, then they become traumatised.Inspector Damien Christensen
Understanding he couldn't simply cut the workload or reduce the amount of trauma police are exposed to with the click of his fingers, Inspector Christensen did have the power to promote better work/life balance and to reduce the isolation felt by police members working alone in single-member stations.
He did this in a number of ways.
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Firstly, he reformed rosters so members could work in closer partnership with members of other stations so they would feel more supported after attending an incident, while more of an effort has been made to host a debrief session following each traumatic event.
Secondly, he built the capacity of the sergeants who run the stations, such as at Creswick, Daylesford and Ballan.
And thirdly, he has been organising psychological support services to make regular visits to stations, so members have direct access to support, rather than having to take that first - and often difficult - step to pick up the phone and ask for help.
At the end of last year, police responded to a number of traumatic incidents in Hepburn Shire - a double road fatality at Kingston which included the death of a child as well as a manslaughter death and murder of an elderly woman at Creswick.
Following this, Inspector Christensen decided to organise a well-being day, with psychological services in attendance, to check in with all of the police members.
He hosts well-being days for members across the division twice a year, to ensure they know what services are available to them should they need to access them. On these days the transition to retirement and when to make the move is discussed, while partners are also invited to attend so they can fully comprehend what their police partners might be feeling.
So far, he believes they have been a success.
But while he can control internal practices, he also wanted to influence the number of traumatic incidents police respond to.
Across the region, there is not only an increasing number of mental health-related jobs to respond to, there is also a high suicide rate.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, released in 2019, revealed there had been 19 suicides in Moorabool between 2013 and 2017.
During that same period, eight people died by suicide in Hepburn while seven were recorded in Golden Plains.
Close by, the recorded deaths by suicide in Ballarat was 30 per cent higher than the state average, with 60 suicides recorded during the same period.
Related coverage: Grim toll as Ballarat's suicide figures laid bare
A suicide has a ripple effect across a community - from the person's family and friends who must come to terms with the loss as well as the first responders who attend the scene.
"I can look after my members, but if a crisis still exists in the community - whether it's domestic violence or whether it's mental health concerns - then my people have to respond to it, then they become traumatised," Inspector Christensen said.
"So how do I stop my members attending traumatic events so often? I have to connect other services with the community."
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An idea was then developed for a community well-being night in Bacchus Marsh to link community members in with support services.
Upwards of 70 community members attended. Since then, a working group has been established to continue the conversation between services, involving groups such as the local men's shed, the council and Djerriwarrh Health Services.
By promoting pathways to engagement with mental health services and educating people about which services are available, people will be less likely to reach a crisis point where police are called to intervene.
"By default, we will get less and less and less traumatic incidents because people will be getting the support they need," Inspector Christensen said.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support, phone Lifeline 13 11 14.
Help is also available, but not limited to, via the following organisations:
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467
Mensline: 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au
Survivors of Suicide: 0449 913 535
Relationships Australia: 1800 050 321
headspace Ballarat (for 12-25s and parent support): 5304 4777
Soldier On: 1300 620 380
Ballarat Community Health: 5338 4500
QLife: 1800 184 527 (Support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people)
Family violence: 1800 RESPECT
Veterans support: If you or someone you know needs support call Open Arms on 1800 011 046 - 24 hours a day, seven days a week or visit www.openarms.gov.au
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