New legislation set to come into force in state and territory jurisdictions will make it easier for front line emergency workers to claim compensation and protect them against attacks, as fresh claims of a mental health crisis among Australian police emerge.
A national mental health and wellbeing survey of more than 21,000 emergency services workers released by Beyond Blue last November confirmed what had long been anecdotal evidence.
It found that police and emergency service personnel face an increased risk of experiencing a mental health condition and experience higher rates of suicidal thinking than the general population, largely as a result of exposure to traumatic events and workplace stress factors, including inadequate resources and long hours.
The Answering the Call report also found many employees had high or very high distress and probable PTDS, but were reluctant to report mental health issues.
It also found poor workplace practices and culture are just as debilitating for emergency service personnel as being exposed to trauma.
The report marked the first national survey of its kind, and created the first ever baseline of national prevalence data, as well confirming some of the risk factors.
Removing onus of proof from PTSD
In a sign that governments are beginning to respond to the evidence, Tasmania on Wednesday introduced legislation which will make it the first jurisdiction in Australia to reverse the onus of proof on public sector workers seeking PTSD-related compensation.
This means that the cause of PTSD among first responders – including police, firefighters, paramedics and volunteer first responders – will automatically be assumed to be work-related for the purpose of claiming workers compensation.
The laws will make it easier for emergency responders who experience work-related trauma to gain compensation, building and construction minister Sarah Courtney says.
“This legislation acknowledges the incredibly difficult situations that many of our emergency responders face in the line of work,” she said in a statement.
“This ground-breaking reform will have a profound impact for our frontline workers, who put their lives at risk to protect us, and help to de-stigmatise mental health issues in our community.”
It comes after a review of existing legislation last year found presumption would have significant benefits and social value for Tasmania’s 1,300 police, 300 firefighters, 22 SES members, 300 correctional staff and 300 Ambulance Tasmania staff, as well as almost 6,000 volunteer first-responders.
A government spokesman told Government News the legislation has the support of both sides of politics and is expected to pass shortly.
Protection for NT emergency workers
Meanwhile new legislation that passed in the Northern Territory earlier this month bolsters protection for emergency service workers by increasing penalties for people who assault Fire and Rescue, Emergency Services and St John Ambulance workers.
Under the new laws, the penalty for assaulting an emergency worker will be the same as for assaulting a police officer.
Attorney General Natasha Fyles says it is unacceptable that 35 ambulance paramedics were assault last year.
“Emergency services workers are saving the lives of Territorians and we need to ensure they are protected in return,” she said.
St John Ambulance NT CEO Judith Baker welcomed the beefed-up laws saying they sent a strong message that assaults on paramedics would not be tolerated.
“It is great for our staff to know they will now be supported by law, at the same level as police and other front line emergency workers who carry out life-saving work on a daily basis.”
Police in crisis
Mental health is one of the biggest issues facing Australian Federal Police, the AFP Association said, citing budget cuts which could mean the loss of 500 jobs over the next five years as an additional stress.
President Angela Smith said there had been four suicides in AFP buildings over the last two years.
“We face some of the worst things that police officers have to face. Child exploitation videos, counter-terrorism beheading videos, stuff that the average citizen has no clue about,” she told reporters outside the AFPA National Council meeting on Wednesday.
“That stuff stays in your mind forever, that will be forever snapshotted in your brain.”
She said many AFP officers were reluctant to speak out about mental health problems because they feared retribution.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are not admitting and not telling the organisation they’re suffering from anxiety and depression and PTSD,” she said.
“They’ve got their diagnosis from outside the organisation, and they’re not telling the AFP because they fear that if they do they will be made non-operational, and they will be taken out of their job and put into a corner to try and perform their job from there.”
Meanwhile in NSW, the police union highlighted what it said was a mental health emergency in the state, with around 300 police discharged with psychological injuries each year. Ninety five per cent of medical discharges related to PTSD, the Police Association of NSW said.
Secretary Pat Gooley said exposure to traumatic incidents and work intensity were the leading cause of psychological injuries and the union wanted to see more government investment in its Workplace Improvement Program which is designed to help officers manage difficult aspects of their job.
Psychological injuries were costing the state $780 million a year, he said.
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