First responder leaders know acutely that the impacts of first responders’ unique exposure to trauma can deeply change and cost lives. As can the impacts of more widespread workplace risks such as bullying and harassment. Stories continue to be told and reports made of first responders who have slipped through the cracks, failed to be supported, or fallen victim to needlessly unsafe work environments.
On 24 May 2018, the NSW Mental Health Commission brought together leaders and representatives of first responder organisations in NSW along with representatives from SafeWork NSW and icare to report on progress against the implementation of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy for First Responder Organisations in NSW.
The Strategy, launched in October 2016, was developed by the Commission and the Black Dog Institute in collaboration with first responder organisations.
It was acknowledged in 2016 that the Strategy was not being developed in a vacuum. It built on what was already happening in first responder agencies in preventing and responding to mental health challenges among first responders.
It is clear that this work is continuing. First Responder leaders provided extensive examples of activity they are undertaking against the six strategic objectives of the Strategy.
Amidst the considerable achievements noted by organisations, First Responder leaders also shared the ongoing challenges of transforming agencies to be workplaces in which it is safe to ask for help and where managers are well trained to respond. Culture change also continues to be required in relation to day to day work practices and work experiences for people working in first responder organisations.
Support for the mental health and wellbeing of first responders was enhanced by the announcement of $55m investment through the NSW Mentally Healthy Workplaces Strategy 2018-2022. The NSW Mental Health Commission advised on the development of this Strategy and will monitor and advise on its implementation through the Mentally Healthy Workplaces Steering Committee. The specific needs of first responders will form part of our ongoing advocacy including for increased research into prevention of, and responses to, bullying.
Significant improvements in organisational responses will continue to come from research. The meeting was addressed by world leading researcher into first responder mental health, Associate Professor Sam Harvey from the Black Dog Institute. The work of Associate Professor Harvey and other researchers and their collaboration with first responder organisations is a significant asset for NSW. icare has taken up a role in funding the research program of Associate Professor Harvey and in supporting continued progress against the Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy for First Responder Organisations in NSW.
Research translation was identified by first responder representatives as an area requiring specialised ongoing focus. The NSW Mental Health Commission along with icare are committed to continue to work with first responder agencies to support the implementation of evidence within contexts of considerable operational complexity.
NSW Deputy Mental Health Commissioner Allan Sparkes, a former NSW police officer with lived experience of psychological injury noted after the meeting that “Systems aren’t perfect, people are still suffering and being injured. But I saw genuine intent, progress and positive approaches to reduce the physical and mental risks of injury. The wheel has turned so much since I lost my career to PTSD many years ago.”
The NSW Mental Health Commission looks forward to hearing of more positive action over the coming years and less stories of people’s health and wellbeing being jeopardised as they work on the frontline to support ours.