At least five Victorian police officers, paramedics and firefighters are taking leave for psychological injuries every week, as new data shows worsening mental health among frontline staff.
WorkSafe statistics obtained by Fairfax Media reveal the number of insurance claims for mental health injuries have surged 25 per cent in five years for emergency services personnel, with 305 claims lodged in 2015 alone.
Psychological injuries now account for almost a quarter of all worker compensation claims from Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, the State Emergency Service and the state’s fire agencies.
The spike in claims comes as Victoria Police voices rising concerns about traumatic stress and suicides within the force, and undertakes a high-level mental health review.
Three police employees have killed themselves so far this year, and a serving policewoman is suing the force for damages, claiming she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after attending the death of Darcey Freeman, who was thrown from the West Gate Bridge by her father in 2009.
WorkSafe Victoria’s new chief executive, Clare Amies, said mental health problems were a serious issue in emergency service workplaces, and had become a “top priority” for the regulator.
“These people go into work every day doing pretty tough things … meeting people who are also going through bad situations,” she said. “But it is the responsibility of the employer to make sure that there are systems and structures within that environment to reduce the risks of being physically or mentally injured, and supports in place if it does happen.”
For Melbourne paramedic Al Briggs, there was no single trigger: the stress consumed him slowly, and built up over time, following a series of fatal callouts.
“You just pick up ghosts,” he said.
Paramedic Al Briggs says dealing with horrific situations on a regular basis gradually wore him down. Photo: Pat Scala
“Some arsonists blew themselves up in a pizza shop … then there was a fatal car accident when people were doing burnouts out the front of a party.
“The one that affected me the most was a little girl, a week short of her second birthday, who was reversed over in the driveway. Her brother had nicked out the front to play footy, and she snuck out behind him.”
Soon, the horrifying scenario became a recurring flashback, haunting the veteran ambulance officer and keeping him sleepless most nights.
The severity of his struggle became clear with a sudden outburst during a debrief. He was referred to a PTSD clinic and went on stress leave for months.
“People just aren’t designed to see all the trauma that we do,” he said. “The quicker you get onto it, the better the result will be.”
Ms Amies said the mental health risks for Victoria’s front-line emergency workers included workload, stress, occupational violence and constant exposure to disturbing scenes. “With front-line staff, it is complex, but we can’t say it’s too hard,” she said. “It can never be too hard … there is always more employers can do.” Ms Amies said WorkSafe was preparing to unveil new initiatives this year after identifying mental health injuries as an area for improvement. “Victoria leads the way in workplace health and safety but while the number of physical injury claims is declining, when we look at the claims numbers for mental health injuries, they are static,” she said.”We have already made a decision internally that it is a priority for us.”
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said last month that he hoped the sweeping review into mental health, currently under way, would prove a watershed moment for the force, and increase understanding of PTSD.
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This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 7 March 2016.