The National Mental Health and Wellbeing Study of Police and Emergency Services
Beyond Blue’s Police and Emergency Services Program commenced in 2014. A key element of the program, the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Study of Police and Emergency Services, began in 2016 and comprised three phases:
- Phase 1: a qualitative narrative project (2016) that gathered the personal mental health experiences of current and former police and emergency services workers, as well as partners and family members.
- Phase 2: a national baseline survey (2017-2018). The world’s most comprehensive national survey to date of police and emergency services mental health, Answering the call, provided baseline data of the mental health and wellbeing of more than 21,000 police and emergency services workers and volunteers.
- Phase 3: a collaborative knowledge-to-action project (2019-2020) where police and emergency services agencies were supported to translate the evidence identified by Phases 1 and 2 of the research to promote wellbeing and mental health, support those affected by poor mental health and prevent suicide within their agencies.
The study highlighted three areas critical for promoting positive mental health in the sector:
- It is essential to create mentally healthy workplaces to support police and emergency services employees and volunteers. Beyond Blue Chair, The Hon Julia Gillard AC, likened a supportive work culture to “giving everyone in the organisation a mental health inoculation”.
- Police and emergency services personnel are more likely to experience high levels of distress but may not recognise the signs and symptoms. Improving mental health literacy and understanding how to protect one’s own mental health is crucial.
- Individuals have a positive regard for, and are supportive of, colleagues experiencing mental health conditions. However, individuals still grapple with self-stigma which prevents them speaking openly about their own experiences and seeking support.
Answering the call
Answering the call identified common challenges across all state, territory, and national jurisdictions and also across the sub-sectors (Ambulance, Fire and Rescue, Police, State Emergency Services) and provided insights into how the sector might move forward.
Translating knowledge into action
Following Answering the call, Beyond Blue moved to a collaborative knowledge-to-action project (2019-2020) with individual agencies.
Based on the learnings from engaging with agencies, the following practical actions surfaced as ways to further progress towards leading practice.
Mental health and wellbeing strategy design and implementation
- Develop or update a formal, Executive-endorsed mental health and wellbeing strategy (and associated action plan) that broadly follows a Protect-Promote-Support framework and involves a broad range of stakeholders in the design process. Beyond Blue’s Good practice framework for mental health and wellbeing in police and emergency services organisations (2020), incorporates insights from the seven-year program and is a useful resource to assist with this strategic development.
- Use evidence informed actions wherever possible in preference to solutions that may be popular or fashionable but are not supported by research or identified as leading practice.
- Utilise a psychosocial risk assessment approach to further inform development and prioritisation of actions in the strategy.
- Develop a mental health and wellbeing champion network charged with broadening buy-in to the strategy.
- Consider measuring strategy performance against a variety of benchmarks which could incorporate: the baseline established by Answering the call; annual wellbeing surveys; or potentially partnering with other agencies to benchmark at a sector level.
Co-operation and collaboration
- Promote a philosophy of shared or mutual responsibility for promoting and supporting mental health and wellbeing.
- Establish forums or working parties with broad organisational representation to respond to complex challenges, such as stigma and bullying, from multiple angles.
- Promote collaboration not only within agencies but also across agencies to leverage lessons learned and to avoid duplication of effort across agencies who already experience resourcing shortages.
Welcome developments in recent years
As a result of the findings of Answering the call, Beyond Blue made several recommendations for agencies and governments to continue to improve the mental health and wellbeing of police and emergency services personnel. In particular, Beyond Blue recommended that, under the leadership of the Australian Government, all governments should work together to address the findings, focusing on four key components:
- Government funding to ensure the ongoing delivery of agency programs
- Best-practice interventions and programs (ideally, delivered by a national centre of excellence)
- Workers’ compensation reform, and
- Support for former employees.
Since the sector embarked on their path for change, the following welcome developments have unfolded:
- In response to the Senate inquiry into First Responders, The people behind 000: mental health of our first responders, the Australian Government has committed $4.5 million to the Department of Home Affairs to develop a national action plan for first responder mental health, as well as in principle support for workers’ compensation reform. It is hoped that the national action plan will lead to nationally coordinated actions, incorporating some of the other initiatives outlined below.
- Several State and Territory governments have demonstrated a commitment to leading practice interventions and programs including an Australian Government commitment to fund a national centre of excellence for police and emergency services mental health.The Blue Hub model is being piloted in Victoria in a collaboration between The Police Association Victoria and Phoenix Australia.
- The Australian Government committed $76 million for dedicated resources towards mental health supports in response to the ‘Black Summer’ 2019-20 bushfires across a range of initiatives.
- $11.5 million in funding to the Black Dog Institute and Fortem Australia Limited recognises the importance of involving families and the broader community in supporting the mental health of police and emergency services personnel. It will provide mental health support directly to emergency services personnel and their families.
A sector-led approach to the future
With the close of the final phase of the Police and Emergency Services Study, and after many years of research, advocacy and driving change in the sector, Beyond Blue has shifted its focus from a dedicated police and emergency services program to supporting sustainable, national or sector-led approaches. Beyond Blue is committed to continuing to influence positive changes across all workplaces, including in the police and emergency services sector.
Beyond Blue recognises and commends the evidence-based initiatives and policy changes that are emerging or underway to improve police and emergency services personnel mental health. Beyond Blue continues to advocate for governments, agencies, unions, peak bodies and other key stakeholders to collaborate and work together, which will ultimately lead to better outcomes for our police and emergency services personnel more quickly, and with less duplication.
Beyond Blue applauds the commitment and leadership shown by many agencies in working to address mental health challenges and to share agency learnings and resources. By working together, the sector is creating greater positive change and impact for its staff and volunteers, and that is the outcome we are all aspiring to.