Emergency services personnel are increasingly seeking mental health support for work-related conditions, experts have said.
Counsellors and psychologists are reporting a surge in police, firefighters and ambulance staff reaching out for help, either through self-referral or through their employer.
Canberra registered counsellor David Nielsen, who has been in the profession for 20 years, said recently he’s been seeing a rise in first responders walking into his practice.
“There’s been a more of them coming through. It’s been going on for a few years,” Mr Nielsen said.
“I’m not sure why it’s been the case. Perhaps it’s because people are more aware of mental health issues, but people are talking about it a lot more than they used to.”
Mr Nielsen said he’s seen more police officers seek support than other emergency services, but said most require help because of cumulative trauma while responding to incidents at work.
“Police are meeting people on a daily basis who are going through the worst days in their lives, so we’re seeing more of them,” he said.
“It’s more about the emotional side of things. They’ve often been to a really bad accident, so it’s often difficult to come to terms with.”
The increase comes as a senate committee examines the high rates of mental health conditions among frontline emergency workers.
Organisational psychologist Peter Cotton, who helped lead a 2017 review into Victoria Police’s mental health policy, said officers have been more willing to come forward.
Australian Counselling Association chief executive Philip Armstrong said many officers are asking if the cost of counselling sessions can be offset.
“Those who can afford private services will engage with them, however, this does become a financial burden,” Mr Armstrong said.
“It is far most cost-effective to offer a fully trained emergency service worker 10 free counselling sessions as opposed to having to replace workers who can no longer function well in their work.”
Mr Armstrong said more coordination between state and territory governments are needed to offset costs involved.
“Liaison officers need to be implemented to help guide workers on how to access counselling and mental health services,” he said.
An ACT Policing spokesman said a range of services are made available to officers, including 24-hour access to welfare officers, psychologists and off-site mental health workers who provide counselling.
“These funded services ensure holistic support for members who are able to access a wide range of additional services through the AFP employee assistance program,” the spokesman said.
“The stigma is reducing. If people used to say at work they had PTSD, they would likely be marginalised, now people are more confident in coming forward for help,” Mr Cotton said.
“We’re trying to get people to recognise the early warning signs to help each other.”
Mr Cotton said evidence of the increase in requests for help can be seen in support offered following large-scale incidents where emergency services are involved.
“After Black Saturday in 2009, very few people put their hands up for contact with a welfare officer,” he said.
“After the Bourke Street tragedy in 2017, more than 900 police officers put up their hands for help.”
While many emergency services are referred by their employers to psychologists for subsidised sessions, there are growing calls to extend it to counsellors.