It cost Kate Carragher her marriage, her house, her career – and finally her own mental health – after her husband was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder while he was working as a police officer.
“We tried to seek help through NSW Police Force many times. There is a huge culture of fear, stigma, and silence surrounding PTSD,” she said.
“Support for police officers is dismal at its best and nonexistent for many others.
“In the end, as a result of the disorder, we lost our marriage, house, our careers and I was also diagnosed with PTSD.”
The spouses and children of police officers who have seen too many bloody crime scenes and road crashes are usually the first to see the signs, and feel the impact, of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many families fracture under the pressure.
Greens MP David Shoebridge is hosting a parliamentary forum on the treatment of police officers with mental health injuries on Tuesday and said figures from the Auditor-General show 30 to 50 police officers have made insurance claims for psychological injury each month since 2012. What the statistics do not show is the number of families of injured police who feel the impact of their mental illness.
Kate Carragher, from Newcastle, is among that hidden number of partners of injured police who end up being diagnosed with mental illness themselves, and will tell her story at the parliamentary forum.
Ms Carragher said after failed attempts to seek help for more than two years, her former husband’s condition deteriorated and he needed to enter a hospital program. She believes his injuries could have been prevented with some basic support.
“PTSD is a brutal disorder not only for those suffering it, but for those closest to them,” she said. “Many officers’ family members, including children, suffer secondary trauma as a result of caring for them.””The NSW Police Force do not even consider family members. But there is so much that can be done to prevent PTSD and support officers and their families.”
Ms Carragher has been calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of injured officers and for a family support unit and management plan to change the culture of denial about mental illness.
Belinda Neil, 46, who was medically retired from the NSW Police in 2005, two years after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, wrote a book about her experience.
As a former homicide investigator and hostage negotiator, she never stopped to process what she was seeing before moving on to the next task.
“I never had time to think about it. No one said, ‘you need to take some time out’,” she said.
Eventually, Ms Neil was experiencing flashbacks of crime scenes and could not get out of bed. Her marriage broke down after she became ill.
“There is a real stigma about mental illness, so you keep things to yourself, but, eventually, you fall off the perch,” she said.
“I was so severely depressed, I was negotiating with myself to jump off a cliff.”
When a doctor told Ms Neil she needed three months off work, one of her colleagues suggested she was putting on an act.
“That reaction was an indication of the police culture and lack of understanding about PTSD,” she said.
“There needs to be more education and tracking of people with trauma.”
Mr Shoebridge said the Minister for Police, Stuart Ayres, had declined an invitation to attend the forum.
“As an elected representative, and especially as Police Minister, there is surely an obligation to hear first-hand from police about the often traumatic consequences of their service,” he said.
But Mr Ayres said he was already working with police and the police union to improve police welfare and dismissed Mr Shoebridge’s forum as a political stunt.
“I have met with a number of current and former police officers and their welfare remains my highest priority,” Mr Ayres said.
A NSW Police spokesman said it introduced 79 initiatives to promote wellbeing, prevent and manage injury and improve rehabilitation.
They include 24-hour trauma support and Beyond Blue mental health training.
“The Auditor General recently reviewed the death and disability scheme and the NSW police force’s welfare programs and found they are assisting officers to return to work and prevent injuries in the first place,” the spokesman said.
“The Auditor General found more NSW police officers are now returning to work after being injured, with fewer medical discharges than in previous years.”
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 2 December 2014.