I started Fortem Australia after seeing the huge gap in such support mechanisms for first responders. These people go into extraordinarily challenging and traumatic situations every day: some do it as their job, and others respond to emergency calls after their workday. All of them deserve to have access to the help they need.
It’s tempting to assume that the tens of thousands of volunteers who have experienced such major mental health challenges have been provided with myriad supports. But the truth is that less than half of them (48 per cent) received mental health assistance in the year following the fires.
They are being treated the way that veterans used to be: their mental health is placed in the “too hard” basket, while we ask them to quietly cope with the traumatic experiences they face.
This is unacceptable. We cannot continue to turn away from the calls for help that the research and the lived experiences of first responders continue to highlight.
Just as they walk into difficult situations every day, we must face this emergency directly.
How? Well, as ECU have highlighted, the services that employ first responder staff or rely on emergency volunteers need to step up to provide a comprehensive mental health support system. But we also know that not everyone wants to access professional help through their workplace or volunteer agency, for a number of reasons including a fear of stigma, worries of losing their job or being seen as unable to cope.
Because of this, it’s important to offer independent services that provide psychological assistance, wellbeing support that builds the mental fitness they need to keep doing this vital work, and programs that help them transition to different types of work when needed.
They need peer support, so they can connect with people who have been in similar situations.
We also hear from the families of first responders that they want to be better equipped to help their loved ones. Families are on the front line of this mental health emergency: they see when things aren’t going well, they can assist their first responder loved ones to access further support, and they can help them do the daily things that boost their ability to cope.
Importantly, we can’t always expect that those who are struggling can put their hands up and ask for help. Illnesses such as PTSD and depression make it very challenging to reach out.
We need to reach in.
As we head into another summer, we must acknowledge that our volunteers are still dealing with the impacts of previous fire seasons. They are struggling, and they need us. Let’s reach in and support them.
John Bale is the managing director and co-founder of Fortem Australia, and the co-founder and former CEO of Soldier On. Fortem Australia exists to support the mental health and wellbeing of first responders and their families.
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