November 18, 2014 | Anna Patty
Police who can no longer cope with trauma and stress should have access to high status desk jobs to combat mental illness and prevent suicides, psychologists say.
Michael Burge, director of the Australian College of Trauma Treatment in Victoria said cultural change was needed within the police service to stop “blaming the victim” of mental illness.
Clinical psychologist, Stephen Heydt, who has worked with police since 1982, said police academies were churning out police every year knowing many would fall out of the system as a result of injuries including mental illness.
“It’s all so horribly predictable,” he said after Fairfax Media highlighted the hidden problem of suicides and mental illness with the police force on Monday. “The suicides are predictable, the drug alcohol and gambling addictions are predictable, the family breakups are predictable. The domestic violence among police officers which never gets spoken about is also predicable.”
After ten years in the front line, many police felt it was all they were good for and found it difficult to cope with change. Mr Heydt said they should be rotated in and out of frontline policing every five years.
“They should do five years or three years in the frontline and then for a period be pulled into some activity to let them refresh and then move back into that,” he said.
“What is happening is that they are burning out in the front line and then they fall out of the job eventually.”
Mr Heydt said there was a lack of alternative career pathways within the police force for people suffering from mental illnesses including post traumatic stress disorder.
“The police force need to change its attitude towards mental health and how critical it is,” he said.
“There need to be pathways with status for police who can no longer pull bodies out of car wrecks or rivers and all the other terrible things police have to do on a regular basis.
“There needs to be assistance with further education. They need to be trained in the forensic sciences if they can move in that direction; they need to be trained as analysts and with computer skills.”
Another clinical psychologist, Mark Creamer, the former director of the Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health in Melbourne, said it was difficult to screen out vulnerable candidates.
He said the reasons why people developed depression and conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder were complex and not easy to predict.
It included a mix of factors including what the individuals were like before they entered the police force, what they experienced during their career, and the support or lack of support they receive after exposure to trauma. He said the amount of social support someone who suffered from a mental injury received from colleagues, friends and family determined their recovery.
“We might be able to at some point predict these pre-factors but that is only part of the story,” he said.
Stress including financial pressures and workplace bullying could inhibit recovery.
People suffering from post traumatic stress disorder were encouraged to become more socially active as part of their recovery, but heavy surveillance by insurance companies could discourage them from leaving their homes.