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Mandatory counselling recommended for frontline officers

Photo: Health Times
Serving frontline officers, such as paramedics, ambulance and police officers should receive routine counselling and access to a known mental health expert, according to phycologist Dr Karen Phillip.

“We currently have a reactive process rather than proactive,” says Dr Phillip.

“These workplaces do not seem to have the appropriate amount of support for members.

“They offer outside psychology which is viewed by many as a weakness if you need to attend. It can make the officer feel something is wrong with them, they are weak and they can’t cope while colleagues can.”

Dr Phillip believes a better approach is to provide ongoing debriefing from a qualified Counsellor or Therapist who develops a relationship with officers.

“The officers can then feel comfortable speaking with the therapist about any issues including work, family or personal.
“All officers and responders are people with their own issues and life experiences yet many of us see them as these strong individuals capable of anything.

“Yet, they do not get that solace and break many do at work when they can focus on a job or computer screen; they are in life, often at its worst or most traumatic.

“Our serving officers face immense pressures. They deal with death, emotional and distressed members of the community, hardship and trauma, accidents, and those acting violently, as this is what they face each day of their working life.

“They often have no idea what they are about to face with each callout.”

According to Dr Phillip, the past decade has seen an escalation of trauma experienced by officers and responders.

“Possibly due to more personality changing drugs such as ICE, perhaps it is the increase demands on all officers or maybe it is the additional pressures of life that infringes on their work.”

Dr Phillip says officers should be debriefed on a regular basis, such as fortnightly or monthly, as a group, enabling them to feel more connected with the team, and speak more freely.

“They could openly discuss, under therapeutic supervision, how they felt, the what, why, how aspects of their daily experiences.

“If it can become a mandatory part of their job to speak with a counsellor or therapist each month to just talk - about them, their life, family, issues, trauma and so on,  it would lighten and ease so many of those caring for the community can receive the care they need as well.”

Dr Phillip says the enormous impact of these jobs on the mental and emotional health of individuals is underestimated.

“When the officer has experienced trauma within their work, they can take this into their private lives.

“They may look for challenges when they are not present, they anticipate an issue fearing an event, they can become defensive, aggressive and always ready to respond. 

“Many have difficulty sleeping, start viewing people with disdain and struggle to balance their work and life.

“They are always on duty, even when off duty, they are the first to step up or step in.”

Of course, the impact doesn’t stop with the individual officer, often extending to their families, and the broader community.

“When a family member is suffering trauma or overwhelming anxiety it detrimentally affects every family member.

“Research has told us when trauma manifests in one family member, all are affected.

“Officers can then feel an escalation of trauma due to guilt as they are not able to manage their emotions, behaviour or responses appropriately.

“Then the trauma may be accumulating each week to compound their issues. Everyone connected is affected.”

By offering ongoing support, Dr Phillip says we can greatly reduce the stress and sick leave officers and responders need to take.

“Once emotions are reduced more logic returns and the officers and responders can do their jobs better prepared and better able to manage the continuing demands of their jobs.

“Schools offer counselling to children needing support however, we are not offering this same degree of support to our most valuable and needed group of first responders, our officers.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.