BULLYING and harassment are the biggest cause of mental injury claims made by Victoria’s police officers, taking a bigger toll than stress or trauma.
But despite Victoria Police having been rocked by a wave of suicides, more than half of officers’ mental health claims are being rejected, a Herald Sun investigation has found.
Insurers denied 500 of 982 mental injury applications to WorkSafe in the last five years.
The ombudsman is now investigating whether WorkSafe offered insurers financial incentives to reject claims and whether workers were “unreasonably denied liability”.
A number of struggling officers whose mental health claims were knocked back told the Herald Sun it had pushed them to consider suicide.
Police Association secretary Ron Iddles said the crisis could be more extensive than data uncovered under Freedom of Information laws reveal.
Some police officers refused to go through the “brutal” claims process, he said.
“There are many members suffering in silence. They don’t want to put themselves through the stress of the system,” Sen-Sgt Iddles said.
In the past five years:
MORE than 300 police claims were made relating to post-traumatic stress disorder.
HARASSMENT and bullying accounted for 241 claims, workplace stress for 252, and traumatic events for 167.
WORKSAFE agents took more than a standard 28 days to process almost one in 10 of claims that were approved.
Since 2000 16 serving members have killed themselves, eight in the last four years.
Three members, including a Protective Services Officer, have suicided this year alone.
Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said the WorkSafe process could be “difficult and very stressful” for officers.
He said the force was coonducting a mental health review to assess how it could best support officers through the insurance system.
“I made it clear to the experts leading the review that there are no boundaries on the assessments they are undertaking, and we are ready for their honest feedback and appraisal,” Mr Ashton said.
“Off the back of that, we are prepared to many any necessary changes to improve our processes and services.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to provide our employees with a safe workplace, in which bullying and harassment are not tolerated.
“We are working hard to continually improve our organisational culture to be more supportive and inclusive of our employees.”
Blue Hope, a support service begun by police officers after Queensland detective Shane Dall’osto killed himself in 2014, helps more than 120 members suffering from mental illness.
The non-funded organisation is pushing for a nationwide service, independent of the forces’ welfare units.
“Police officers are suspicious that turning to internal supports may damage their careers. That does happen,” said Blue Hope founding director Bruce Graydon.
“Today there is a police officer who will see more trauma in one shift than most people see in their lifetime.
“We need to do more for people who have given so much and done so much to serve the community. We need to be better for them.”
BLACK DOG SAVAGES THE FORCE
UPHOLDING law and order has always been risky, but villains are not the only danger.
Since 2000, five Victoria Police officers have died in the line of duty.
But 16 more have died by their own hand. And police fighting mental illness say the support system is in crisis.
One depressed officer in western Victoria told the Herald Sun the rejection of his WorkSafe claim last October sent him into a “head spin”.
He hasn’t worked since.
“I went into a very dark place,” he said.
The veteran cop, 53, whose claim was finally approved in January, said Victoria Police was continuing to cover up its mental health crisis.
After years of hiding his depression from all but his wife and the force, he set his out-of-office reply to say he was on sick leave fighting a “demon”.
Management changed it “to extended leave”.
“The police department still don’t know how to handle depression and we are still probably hiding as an organisation,” the officer said.
“I had believed depression was a sign of weakness, that you were soft. Real men don’t get depression. But I’m certainly not hiding from it anymore. It is my demon.”
Victoria Police twice rejected attempts by officer Darren Wiseman to get regular psychological debriefing sessions for child abuse detectives, which may have helped an ex-colleague now suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and may have helped him.
Mr Wiseman, who also served with the homicide squad and in peacekeeping missions, is set for a court showdown after his WorkSafe claim for PTSD was rejected. Mr Wiseman says he suffers flashbacks and nightmares, and spent five weeks in hospital. He said mentally ill officers also had to fight a police culture that labelled them “fraidy cats” and “feather dusters”.
“You know you’re suffering (but) you don’t say anything because you’ll be viewed as weak,” he said. “Police are dying. You get this wonderful funeral: the Chief Commissioner comes, the helicopter flies by and the band plays. But it is all far too late.
“Nobody wants a nice funeral. You want a nice life.”
Anyone experiencing personal difficulties can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
This article first appeared on ‘Herald Sun’ on 29 February 2016.