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One in three emergency workers have high psychological distress: survey

One in three emergency workers have high psychological distress: survey - Featured Image

One in three police and emergency service workers have high or very high psychological distress, according to a landmark survey released by Beyond Blue.

More than 21,000 police, fire, ambulance and SES employees, volunteers, and retired and former personnel took part in the Answering the call survey, which set out to build a comprehensive picture of the mental health and wellbeing of police and emergency services workers in Australia.

The survey also showed that employees and volunteers report suicidal thoughts over two times more often than adults in the general population, and are three times more likely to have a suicide plan.

Employees who have worked more than ten years in police and emergency services were found to be almost twice as likely to experience psychological distress and six times more likely to have symptoms of PTSD compared to those with less than two years’ service.

In addition, over half of the employees surveyed experienced a traumatic event during the course of their work that deeply affected them.

Research to drive a targeted, national strategy

The report detailed a range of recommendations to target the mental health of police and emergency service workers.

The authors wrote that all levels of government should work together on a national policy approach. This plan should include steps to address existing mental health service gaps and develop resources to target risk factors.

The paper also recommended that the Australian Government fund and lead the development of a national centre of excellence for police and emergency services mental health – a central hub of proven and emerging best practice interventions and programs.

On the day of the survey’s release, Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman said that “the results will arm everyone with unprecedented national data and insights from those who serve to protect us and keep us safe.”

“It is now everyone’s responsibility – governments, agencies, police and emergency services personnel and their families, unions and peak bodies, services and other stakeholders – to come together to convert this evidence into further action and lasting change.”

“Beyond Blue will support the sector to do this; to analyse and use the research findings to continue to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of police and emergency service personnel,” Ms Harman said.

Workplace culture is a contributing factor

Patrice O’Brien, General Manager of Workplace, Partnerships and Engagement at Beyond Blue told doctorportal that poor workplace practices and culture, as well as poor health literacy, are equally debilitating as exposure to trauma.

“Many employees with high or very high distress and probable PTSD, based on psychometric testing, did not self-report that they had a mental health condition.

“This suggests poor mental health literacy among respondents. While testing suggested the presence of a mental health issue, they were unable to identify this themselves.”

Ms O’Brien said that while most personnel did not hold stigmatising attitudes towards their colleagues, “the study found very high rates of self-stigma, which can also negatively impact help-seeking behaviours.”

One of the recommendations in the report outlined the need for funding agencies to provide communication initiatives, evidence-informed professional development, education and access to resources to address mental health literacy.

It is also vital to promote an inclusive, supportive and cohesive culture free of bullying, stigma and discrimination, and implement strategies to ensure that this culture is translated into team environments.

Survey part of a three-phase research program

Ms O’Brien said the goal of the Answering the call survey was to not only generate a national picture and baseline data of the health and wellbeing of current and former emergency services personnel. The goal was also to identify factors that prevent mental illness and suicide or create risk and challenges.

“In Phase 3 of the study, the knowledge translation phase, Beyond Blue will work with individual agencies to understand how the data relates to their organisation and to identify the best ways to respond, considering the unique needs and findings of each agency.”