THE Australian Federal Police will instate welfare officers in every state and territory where agents are based following news.com.au’s expose about a mental health crisis within the organisation.
The Australian National Audit Office has also ordered an audit “to examine the effectiveness of the AFP in managing the mental health of its employees” and is currently taking submissions from the public.
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin told Senate Estimates in Canberra this week that the organisation was “immediately” moving to employ permanent wellbeing or welfare officers in “each of our locations” nationwide.
It will be the first time in years that AFP members outside of Canberra will have access to in-house face-to-face welfare support, although the wellbeing officers will not be trained or qualified social workers or psychologists.
“These people will not be professionals but what they will be is someone you can sit, have a coffee with, talk to about your problems,” Mr Colvin said.
“We will provide some basic triage training to them so they can determine what is a problem that needs professional help and what is a problem that might need a helpful ear.”
Some critics described the move as ‘all for show’.
“Without putting in qualified and experience professionals who are trained to pick up warning signs of distress (and) suicide ideation, this is just a waste of everyone’s time,” one social media user wrote.
“Shows they aren’t concerned about workers, just public image, this is all for show.”
The issue of mental health in the AFP recently resurfaced after an agent was believed to take her own life in the Melbourne headquarters earlier this month.
News.com.au later revealed that most of the organisation’s 6000 plus members currently only have access to social workers and psychologists via an external provider over the phone. Dozens of members came forward and revealed they suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after being exposed to on-the-job horrors. They said the hotline was ineffective because they were connected to a different person every time they called and there was subsequently no continuity or reliable case management. Many of them had contemplated or attempted suicide.
“We removed full time in-house welfare officers a very long time ago,” Mr Colvin said on Tuesday.
“We moved to what was a professional mental health regime where members of the AFP could reach out to professionals and clinicians for advice.”
Mr Colvin was responding to questions from Senator Nick Xenophon who grilled the top brass of the AFP at Senate Estimates on Tuesday. It came after almost 100 past and present AFP agents contacted news.com.au to highlight systematic and cultural failures within the organisation following the death of their Melbourne colleague. Many of them said there needed to be an inquiry into the AFP’s management of mental health issues.
Most of the agents who spoke to news.com.au said they developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through their on-the-job exposure to child pornography, victims of international terror attacks, murder and other grisly scenes. They claimed their conditions were exacerbated by bullying from senior management and said they had nowhere to turn because the AFP’s welfare support system was deeply flawed.
At Estimates on Tuesday, Mr Xenophon put several questions “on notice” to Mr Colvin, who will have to respond officially before a yet-to-be revealed deadline. Among them: what’s the number of reported bullying incidents in the AFP; and, what qualifications are AFP welfare staff, including social workers and psychologists, required to have?
“I do have a number of concerns,” Mr Xenophon said.
Mr Colvin said he was troubled by revelations of a mental health crisis within the AFP, as revealed by news.com.au.
“I’m aware of the News Limited (Corp) reports and I do know that (AFP agents) have contacted yourself and News Limited (Corp),” he told Mr Xenophon.
“It troubles me that I have former and current members who still hold concerns.
“What I would say to them is: we have embarked on a journey that will not end quickly and we will be doing this for the long term.
“A lot of the work Elizabeth Broderick has done already takes us a long way towards resolving some of those issues.”
Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick completed a review into sexual harassment and bullying within the AFP in August last year. She said at the time the extent of sexual harassment and bullying warranted “an urgent need for action”. Mr Colvin this week told Estimates the AFP was still in the process of completing Ms Broderick’s 24 recommendations.
“(The AFP has) a very robust mental health program,” Mr Colvin said.
“But like any mental health program it’s only as good as when we last updated it.”
The move to instate welfare officers nationwide was part of the organisation’s yet-to-be-completed AFP Mental Health Framework and Action Plan but will now be rolled out immediately, according to the commissioner.
Earlier in the week, news.com.au obtained copies of a new recruitment advertisement for AFP welfare officers, which appeared online just one day before Mr Colvin fronted Estimates.
Mr Colvin said on Tuesday the “overwhelming view of the workforce was that we needed” face-to-face welfare support across the board”.
“The online advert … went out (on Monday) asking members to self-select who they thought could perform a more general wellbeing (or) welfare officer role,” he said.
“What’s been very clear to me recently … is that our officers want someone they can look at, feel, touch, that sits across an office from them in our locations across Australia rather than someone on the phone who they need to make an appointment with.
“So we’ve moved very quickly.
“We were already looking to reintroduce this as part of a holistic package.
“We didn’t wish to wait.”
Mr Colvin said it “pains (him) that members may feel unsupported or that we haven’t put in place the proper mechanisms to support them”.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the work AFP officers do is traumatic at some times,” he said.
Several AFP agents who spoke to news.com.au said they welcomed the move to instate welfare officers in regions outside of Canberra but that there was still “a lot more that needs to be done”.
“It’s good to have a welfare officer as a first point of contact but PTSD is a complex issue so you really need a psychologist trained in that area to talk to in-person for the best chance of recovery,” one agent said.
“Not every agent is going to trust a colleague — who doesn’t have any psychological training but has volunteered as a welfare officer — to keep their darkest secrets safe.”
This piece by Megan Palin was originally published on ‘News.com’ March 5, 2017.