Frontline emergency service workers needing mental health support often don’t feel understood by mainstream counsellors, but a new tailored program may help change that.
A unique counselling program developed in Hobart for defence veterans is now been considered for emergency service workers in Tasmania.
Program founder Jon Lane, Australia’s first military psychiatrist to serve in Afghanistan, established the 12-week counselling course for veterans in Hobart in 2016 which is run through Mates 4 Mates.
Dr Lane recently expanded the Skills Training in Affective Interpersonal Regulation (STAIR) program in Adelaide to include emergency service personnel and it may also be rolled out in Tasmania.
The program trains participants to become peer counsellors.
“The big problem we have with a lot of the services for veterans, police, first responders, is that culturally we are very different,” Dr Lane said.
“A lot of military veterans, police and first responders will go and see someone from the mainstream mental health services and they feel like they are not understood,” he said.
“So they leave and they never come back. By using peers to deliver this [program] what I am trying to do is increase access.
“And in these cultures, particularly, you talk to your mates.”
Matthew Newlands was one of the program’s first participants from outside the veteran community.
Mr Newlands served as a police officer for almost 10 years before developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) .
He recently took part in the STAIR program in Adelaide and said it helped him to re-build his relationships.
“When I began the program back in February this year, I was still unemployed and during the 12 weeks I was able to get a job and really get my life together again,” he said.
“It certainly gave me a lot of tools for my personal life and my relationship with my wife and daughter improved dramatically.”
Mr Newlands said the most important part of the program was that it was delivered by someone with a similar experience.
“Emergency services culture is one of ‘if you haven’t lived the experience, why should we listen?’ he said.
Tasmanians leaving for treatment
Dr Lane said the service was also needed in Tasmania, where people with PTSD were regularly sent interstate for treatment.
“There are no treatment services or facilities for anyone with a trauma disorder in Tasmania and there hasn’t been for at least 15 years,” Dr Lane said.
“Whether that is police, ambos, firies, military veterans – if you have a disorder from your work, well, too bad.
“I have to send people interstate on a regular basis because I can’t send them anywhere here.”
Photo: Peter James says he has never fully recovered after attending the Port Arthur massacre. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)
Peter James, a veteran of 42 years in the Tasmanian Ambulance service, recently spent six weeks as an inpatient at a Melbourne-based trauma recovery service.
He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997 after attending the Port Arthur Massacre the year before and has never fully recovered.
Mr James said it would be incredible to see the STAIR program funded in Tasmania to be rolled out for emergency service workers.
“I have been away six weeks as an inpatient and that is time away from my family and your family are a major support in your life,” he said.
“[The STAIR program] is desperately needed. There are a lot of people out there suffering right now.
“There’s human beings behind those uniforms – police, fire, ambulance – and it is something that is desperately needed.”
Dr Lane hopes to gain funding to deliver the STAIR program through the Department of Police, Fire & Emergency Management (DPFEM) in Tasmania.
“They are interested in developing the capacity to have a peer counselling workforce to deliver the STAIR program,” he said.
DPFEM deputy secretary Donna Adams said the STAIR program was currently under consideration.
“There are a range of psychological support services available for emergency service workers, including those which are provided within DPFEM,” she said in a statement.
“DPFEM employs a psychologist to support staff, and this position also conducts wellbeing checks with staff that are employed in high risk areas. DPFEM also refers members to external psychologists for treatment.”
She said the Tasmanian Government had also committed $1.5 million per annum to DPFEM for a health and wellbeing program.