Mental health of people in uniform: Who protects the protectors?


By dirge

Men and women in uniform are more likely to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than the general public. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Men and women in uniform are the people we go to for help when we’re in trouble. But where do they go in their times of need?

We often associate emergency services officers as the bravest people in the community but most of us fail to acknowledge the hardships some of them battle in their minds.

They are praised and admired for the physical health, when really, the harrowing sights they endure as their job is likely to take a toll on their mental health.

After being exposed to trauma as a part of their everyday life, it’s common for many emergency services officers to experience depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety.

PTSD is one of the most common mental health disorders affecting uniformed personnel, with  Ambulance WA reporting an estimated 10 per cent of all emergency service personnel are reported as having PTSD.

Michael Shepherd is a Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) commander who has been a firefighter for 35 years and has battled with his mental health.

Throughout his career as a firefighter, Mr Shepherd – who is now based in Whyalla in regional South Australia – has been to countless emergency scenes that have been traumatic, including house fire fatalities and vehicle accidents with severe trauma or multiple deaths.

“The MFS has a very good Employee Support Program (EAP) with trained peer support personnel from the firefighter ranks and access to professional psychological counselling services,” Mr Shepherd said.

“These services are not only available for work-related mental health issues but can be used for those who may be struggling with mental health issues in their private lives, such as depression, drug abuse, marital issues, etcetera.”

Although the support is readily available for firefighters, it wasn’t always easy to seek help and there was a stigma attached to counselling.

“Early in my career it was perceived as weakness if you needed assistance to deal with the effects of traumatic incidents,” Mr Shepherd said.

Headsup, an organisation which aims to promote positive mental health and provide strategies for improving and sustaining positive mindsets in the workforce, also acknowledges the barriers to seeking help some people experience: “Stigma regarding mental health conditions is still prevalent in many traditionally male-dominated occupations, such as emergency services”.

While there is still a long way to go, the stigma has faded over time, and support is more readily accessed by most firefighters, including Mr Shepherd.

“[The] MFS is now a great advocate for looking after their employees’ mental health,” he said.

“The MFS is now heavily involved in mental health programs such as RUOK?”.

Mental health support is also available in the form of debriefs among response teams after traumatic incidences.

“After any traumatic incident a Critical Incident Debrief is held whereby all the firefighters have an opportunity to discuss how they feel,” Mr Shepherd said.

“These debriefs are facilitated by a trained peer support person or psychologist.

“A record of individuals’ attendance at traumatic incidents are kept because of the cumulative effect they can have on mental health.”

Mr Shepherd said most firefighters appreciate the opportunity to discuss how they feel and see great benefit from doing so.

The treatment of mental health in these male-dominated careers is similar across the board.

Darryl Wright is an ex-water police officer and diver, and currently the manager of the South Australian Marine Rescue volunteers. He has also been exposed to traumatic events as a result of his job.

“There’s no doubt that specific incidents as well as the cumulative effect of long term exposure to traumatic events have had some impact upon mental health and wellbeing, but fortunately not at a debilitating level,” Mr Wright said.

Just like the MFS, South Australia Police has significantly increased its procedures for supporting employees and their mental health.

“When I commenced my policing career in the early 1980s there wasn’t the same level of awareness surrounding mental health and wellbeing as there is now,” Mr Wright said.

“Quite appropriately, over that time, awareness and support programs continued to evolve and now there is a much greater focus on mental health and wellbeing, access to counselling, as well as breakdowns of some of the stigma attached to mental health,” he said.

However, debriefing among colleagues still seems to be the most common form of counselling in the emergency services.

“I have been involved in a number of debrief processes both as an individual and as part of a group following critical incidents, and while they were largely ‘operationally’ focused, as the spotlight on mental health and wellbeing became more prominent and acceptable there was greater potential for progressive leaders to include those components in incident debriefs,” Mr Wright said.

For anyone looking at signing up as an emergency services officer in the future, Mr Shepherd shared some advice for on how to take care of their mental health when being exposed to trauma is part of their job.

“During your career… you will respond to many traumatic incidents; it is important to take advantage of the services that are available to you and don’t be apprehensive to reach out if something has affected you at work or at home,” Mr Shepherd said.

Headsup has this specific advice for emergency services personnel working on the front line.

Phoenix Australia is a centre for posttraumatic mental health that has a webpage specifically for emergency services.

Phoenix Australia supports uniformed personnel by encouraging them to understand the disorder and how to manage it, as well as supplying treatment guidelines “which focus on the unique challenges of treating PTSD amongst emergency workers”.

Support is also available via:

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636