Victoria Police tackles mental health stigma following officer suicides

Victoria Police tackles mental health stigma following officer suicides

Victoria Police tackles mental health stigma following officer suicides

Updated 7 October 2017, 7:20 AEDT

Victorian police meet to find ways to protect, promote and preserve the wellbeing of staff, after two officers took their lives last month.

The head of Victoria Police in the western region says her team is having serious talks about how to care for members affected by suicide.

In September, two Victorian police officers took their own lives and one of them was based at a country station.

Three hundred police officers gathered in Bendigo this week to learn about how to deal with stress and trauma on the job.

In August, Victoria Police launched its wellbeing strategy, naming a cultural change program and mental health literacy as priorities.

The Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said at the time he wanted to protect, promote and preserve the wellbeing of staff.

But the recent suicides last month have further highlighted the fact that more needs to be done to care for police members' psychological needs.

The Police Association of Victoria organised the event in central Victoria this week which attracted officers from Melbourne and surrounding regional towns.

Secretary Wayne Gatt said police were between four to six times more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder than the general public.

"I think policing is one of the most challenging careers that's out there," he said.

"It is important that we de-stigmatize mental health injuries.

"Every day they are exposed to seeing, hearing and doing things that many of us wouldn't imagine that they would have to do."

Mr Gatt said offenders saw police as a targets more than ever before, and that led to pressure and a personal toll.

"We have seen a steep acceleration in the challenges and the threats confronting our members out on the street everywhere they go," he said.

"No matter where our members work — whether it's in a single-officer station in the bush or it's in a 24-hour metropolitan station in Melbourne — they are equally at risk from threats of terrorism but also from threats of violence."

Leadership approach to mental health

Assistant Commissioner Tess Walsh said she had faced difficult times during her career, which had involved working on both homicide and rape cases.

"I've certainly done my fair share of crime scenes," she said.

"I guess the things that get to me now are when my members are hurt."

Ms Walsh's western division covers regional Victorian towns including Warrnambool, Ballarat, Bendigo, Horsham, and Mildura.

She said at her leadership level it was important to influence policies in a positive way so members got the care they needed.

"Another significant issue for this region is that a lot of the services are accessed through Melbourne, and to get immediate care and to get our members in front of health professionals in the very first instance is a very significant issue," she said.

Assistant Commissioner Walsh said suicide was being talked about more because of the ripple effects felt throughout the force.

"It is discussed more because the prevalence of suicide with VicPol and VicPol families has increased considerably in the last few years, so we are having very serious discussions about how to care for it," she said.

"I have got a couple of work units at the moment that I'm managing in very, very difficult circumstances following the death of one of their teammates and how we care for them is really very important."

Police expert urges the force to prioritise mental health

Behavioural scientist Kevin Gilmartin has retired from working in US law enforcement and has been sharing his insight with Victoria Police.

Dr Gilmartin said he had worked across agencies in Canada and the United States and many of them were similar.

"For too long the mental health needs of law enforcement has been on the back-burner and we really need to make this a high priority," he said.

"For a long time, we have underplayed the damage that policing does to the men and women who do this job."

He also said there were misconceptions about the mental health of people who enforced the law.

"The law enforcement career is something that challenges people tremendously," Dr Gilmartin said.

"It takes its toll on them physically and emotionally."

It was the third time Dr Gilmartin had spoken to Victoria Police members about stress-related issues.

The Association said his coping strategies had been incorporated into an app to help members maintain their mental health each day.

If you or anyone you know needs help you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.