An organisation providing mental health first aid for police officers says the demand for its services is on the rise.
Detective Sergeant Andrew Ayers, the co-founder of Blue Hope, said the organisation had just helped its 177th client.
“[Suicide] is a massive problem. It’s endemic to police everywhere,” Mr Ayers said.
“We identified a shortfall in support services available, and that is that each law enforcement agency around the country has their own internal strategy in terms of dealing with mental health and stress in general amongst police officers.
“[But] there is a bit of a reluctance for members to use those services.”
The organisation is a relatively new service that was formed in 2014 to support police officers and their families to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and other mental health issues.
“Blue Hope basically caters for those people who aren’t for any reason, or don’t for any reason, utilise internal support strategies. We provide mental health first aid for them on a national basis,” Detective Sergeant Ayers said.
The organisation’s aim is to raise awareness of police suicide and to provide a 24 hour hotline service for officers, both current and former.
Raising awareness of police suicide in the Wide Bay
Detective Sergeant Ayers recently visited Bundaberg to attend and support a fundraiser organised to celebrate the life of Detective Senior Constable Russell Sheehan, who took his life in December.
The more people we can get talking about suicide the more likely it is that we can prevent itDetective Sergeant Andrew Ayers
In 2000 the senior constable was the first on the scene of the Palace Backpackers Hostel fire in Childers where 15 people lost their lives.
Detective Sergeant Ayers said it was clear Detective Senior Constable Sheehan had had a positive influence on the Bundaberg, Childers and Woodgate areas.
“We’ve had some extensive dealings with his family in the wake of his tragic death,” he said.
“The focus really was to have people talking about the fact that such a highly regarded police officer felt that his only option was to take his own life, and that’s the real sad aspect of it.
“The more people we can get talking about [suicide], the more likely it is that we can prevent it.”
He said the tragedy of Detective Senior Constable Sheehan’s death highlighted the need to support all emergency service workers, who were usually the first on the scene of traumatic incidents.
Big toll on first responders
Figures released last year revealed it was estimated one emergency service worker took their own life every six weeks.
The figure, based on coronial cases, has support organisations concerned that the figure could actually be higher.
In response, Beyond Blue is preparing to undertake a national mental health study on first responders to investigate the prevalence of mental health conditions, suicide and stigma in Australia.
The findings of the study will be released at the end of 2017.
Beyond Blue’s spotlight on mental health issues facing emergency service workers is also set to intensify next month, as the first national conference on the mental health of Australian first responders is held in Sydney.
A personal response
While organisations such as Blue Hope and Beyond Blue are raising awareness, so too are individuals.
If I can stress anything out there to the people, to anyone with post-traumatic stress, or even if they are feeling a little bit off — talk to people, communicate.Graham Forlonge
Singer songwriter Brendan Smoother, from Lismore in NSW, was horrified by the number of paramedics taking their own lives.
This prompted him to write and release an EP entitled Paramedic Suicide.
Mr Smoother, a paramedic himself for 21 years, won an award at this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival for the EP.
Mr Smoother said he had been inspired to write the songs when he read about the alarming statistics of paramedics committing suicide, and realised he himself had known a number of paramedics who had taken their own lives.
“Personally I’ve never really had an issue with post-traumatic stress disorder, but I have certainly seen it in other people, ” he said.
The importance of seeking help
Former police officer, surf lifesaver and search and rescue diver Graham Forlonge, from Baffle Creek in Queensland, is one of many emergency services personnel whose life has been negatively impacted by PTSD.
Mr Forlonge said he struggled to get the right help for years, due to the number and type of traumatic incidents he had experienced.
“The best thing I could say to the people out there suffering from post-traumatic stress, and there are thousands of them — police, ambulance, fire brigade, rescue squad, military — is if you’re having issues, keep looking. There are people out there who do understand PTSD,” Mr Forlonge said.
He said talking to people and telling his stories had helped him, and he urged others to do the same.
“You’ve got to find someone to talk to,” he said.
“If I can stress anything out there to the people, to anyone with post-traumatic stress, or even if they are feeling a little bit off — talk to people, communicate,” he said.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 23 February 2016.