Emergency service bosses say changing the blokey culture in their organisations is key to reducing high suicide rates among frontline staff.
Chiefs from Fire and Rescue, Australian Federal Police, state police, ambulance services and the SES joined beyondblue in Sydney on Thursday to discuss mental health problems crippling first responders.
NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins said the service’s new 50:50 men to women ratio for its applicant intake scheme would help firefighters to seek help.
“I’ve been a firefighter for 45 years and I noticed the culture change 31 years ago when women started coming in. People started talking more,” he said.
“It’s still very blokey and that can make it tough for firefighters to say `I’ve got a problem’.”
On average, 15 firefighters are medically discharged each year in NSW due to psychological illness.
AFP chief operating officer Andrew Wood said a blokey culture coupled with team loyalty made it hard for individuals to admit they struggled with the mental pressures of the job.
“People don’t realise that we had staff at the Bali bombings, the (Indian Ocean) tsunami and staff who view child abuse material, which is quite harmful,” he said.
“Twenty per cent of our workers’ compensation claims relate to mental health and on average they are the most expensive.”
Mr Wood said while emergency services should look after their staff on principle, there was also an economic argument for offering support services early on.
Georgie Harman, CEO of beyondblue, said preventing emergency service staff taking their own lives would be one of the organisation’s priorities over the next few years.
“We’re really distressed and disturbed by the number of suicides of out first responders who put their lives on the line every day for others,” she said.
“Paramedics in Victoria commit suicide at a rate four times higher than other employees.”
* For support and information about suicide prevention, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.