Allan Sparkes served for 20 years as a frontline police officer and is the only Australian to be awarded Australia’s highest civil award, the Cross of Valour and a subsequent Australian Bravery Decoration, the Commendation for Brave Conduct. In 2017, Allan was awarded an Order of Australia medal for service to mental health support organisations and to the community.
Allan is one of only 10 Australians to be presented the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal, along with other significant awards for bravery, valour and service, making him one of Australia’s most decorated citizens.
During his NSW police career, Allan was involved in the aftermath of the Hilton Bombing, arrested some of Australia's most notorious criminals, faced the tragedy of losing colleagues, and saved the life of a drowning child.
“Police work was an integral part of my life, it was critical to my sense of worth. It provided many opportunities to make positive changes to people’s lives,” Allan said.
“My life was very enjoyable. I was playing sport to a pretty high level, was successful with my work and I had great relationships with my wife and daughter so the future was looking fantastic.”
Allan has seen it all during his career, and then some. Ultimately Allan developed chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and became suicidal. That was the point when he knew he had to get professional help.
“Post-traumatic stress, to me, was like a never-ending playing of events on a DVD that was going over and over in my mind. The things that I had seen, were just continually in my vision, whether it was during the daytime, the night-time, the time to sleep, and eventually it got to the stage where I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t close my eyes.
“There was just this sense of hopelessness with my situation that I believed I could never ever recover from. I didn’t use alcohol, I abused alcohol, which was one of the biggest mistakes I made. If you’re tempted to use alcohol as a form of self-medication, don’t do it.”
Allan was comprehensively assessed by a psychiatrist and immediately commenced medication. He continued to work with his psychiatrist over a number of years.
“Some of the most frightening aspects of PTSD is fear. Fear you will never recover, fear you will never be better. We now know people can and do recover from PTSD.”
He set about re-building everything that mattered, a roller coaster of successes and challenges which lasted for many years culminating in a voyage of discovery and recovery, sailing his yacht ‘Sunboy’ with his family from England back to Australia.
“My greatest sense of achievement was being able to sail across massive oceans with my wife and my children and another young crew member on board. It was something that I never ever thought I could achieve. It has been a life-long goal ever since I was a child and for me, it was the ultimate that it gave back to me everything I had once lost.”
Allan believes you cannot have good mental health without good physical health and vice versa.
“I still maintain high levels of physical fitness, training a minimum of three times a week, minimal alcohol consumption, I haven’t smoked for 18 years, I sleep well and I eat well,” he said.
“Being engaged in positive activities and programs is also of great benefit as well as volunteering to help others enhances one’s own self-worth.
“I honestly don’t know if I could have recovered without the support of my wife and children. They were instrumental in giving me the opportunities I needed to get better. Good support is the back-up you need at times, the motivator to keep going when the hard days hit.”
Allan encourages anyone struggling with their mental health, to find someone to talk to about what they are feeling and experiencing.
“It can be your family and friends, a GP or a counselling phone line. You need to make the first step.”
Allan describes police and first responders as ‘society’s life support system’.
“Without them, society cannot function safely and efficiently, especially in times of crisis.
“Beyond Blue is working to educate our Police and Emergency Services about the physiological impact their work may have on them and the precursors for mental illness such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.
“The more we are proactive about preparing our Police and Emergency Services about the risks they face in their work environment, the better equipped they will be to ensure their longevity in the workplace and a higher quality of life both professionally and personally.
“We are seeing more and more evidence of first responders returning to work and settling back into their normal lives again. We all need to learn from those people and share their stories to give confidence to people experiencing mental health conditions and their families that life can be good again."
Allan has become a renowned public speaker, mental health and suicide prevention advocate. He is also a published author and has appeared on 60 Minutes, ABC News24, A Current Affair, Richard Fidler and the Conversation Hour, along with features in Australia’s leading newspapers and magazines.
As a Beyond Blue Ambassador, Allan speaks openly and honestly about the devastating effects of mental health conditions and the mistakes he made which contributed to his mental illnesses. But he also focuses on Beyond Blue’s messages of hope, recovery and resilience. The way Allan overcame these illnesses is an inspirational story in itself and can help others overcome the stigma of mental illness.