Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 September 2018


Mental Health

7:29 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What do we do in times of crisis? We call 000 and hope like hell they can help. Whether it's a car crash, a house fire, a flash flood, a heart attack or an armed robbery, we know our first responders will be there as quick as they can and do their best to help us. Many of us have not seen a traumatic incident or needed to make quick decisions to save lives or property. But for our first responders—police, ambos, firies, emergency services, 000 call operators, emergency nurses, volunteers and many others—it's what they do day in, day out. For many of these people the regular exposure to stress and trauma adds up like a bucket under a leaky tap. Despite doing all they can to cope to keep on helping us in our time of need, sometimes it gets too much. The bucket overflows. We need to provide greater support before this happens. Equally, when it does happen, we must ensure that our first responders can access medical and psychological support, that their workplace helps and supports them, and that in the process of getting help first responders are not retraumatised.

Working with north-west Tasmanian intensive care paramedic Simone Haigh, Labor initiated a Senate inquiry to examine the issue and find best practice for how first responder organisations can best support the mental health of their staff, volunteers and former staff. The Senate inquiry has received 113 submissions from across the country and has so far held hearings in five capital cities, with more to come. There has been evidence from individuals, first responder organisations, unions, peer support organisations, researchers and professional associations. I'd like to thank the many individuals, in particular, for their courageous submissions detailing their own personal stories and ideas for change. We've had evidence from each state and territory and as far away as Canada.

The evidence is clear: first responders experience mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression and post-traumatic stress injuries at rates much, much higher than the general population. While everyone wants to do things better, we've heard clearly that most first responder organisations are not moving fast enough. There is still a stigma around reporting mental health conditions, with many fearful that it will affect their career because of the bullying and intimidation experienced by their colleagues, bullying that the top brass will say doesn't exist, with many good intentions from above but layers of management that continue the practices of old.

Likewise, the quality of care for our first responders differs too much across this country. Care too often depends on the experience and capability of direct management. Care and support is too often provided by counsellors or health professionals without experience and understanding of the unique challenges that are faced by first responders and the unique, cumulative nature of their trauma. We've also heard that some of our first responder organisations are chronically under-resourced, leading to ambulance ramping, double shifts, inadequate time off between shifts and little time for appropriate debriefs.

All of these workplace stresses, coupled with the obvious trauma of the job, result in that bucket filling and a worker experiencing a mental health injury. After the stress and pain of work, an injured first responder must navigate the adversarial workers compensation system, which we have heard time and again causes greater pain, retraumatises first responders and leaves many worse off than when they began. Cruelly, many workers compensation systems across the country have developed such a bad reputation that many first responders are left not wanting to try what seems to be impossible.

One shining light is the approach taken by the West Australian fire and emergency department with respect to workers compensation claims. This department has developed an understanding with their insurer that since 2010 all post-traumatic stress claims lodged by first responders are accepted liabilities and preventive therapies are funded without prejudice until the final determination is made. Another is the model deployed across many Canadian provinces, where the presumption that first responders' mental health injuries are a workplace injury is enshrined in legislation. I look forward to the upcoming hearings receiving further submissions. Our first responders are expected to help us in our time of need. We need to help them and we can and must do more.