What we do is not a normal job, we are there to help those Australians who are having the worst or last days of their life, and we do it because we care.
On 27 March 2009, Constable Morgan James Hill's mother contacted his employer to tell them that something was not right with her son. The New South Wales police service did not seek input or assistance from trained mental health police negotiators. Instead, they sent two police cars and officers in bulletproof vests, who found and trained their lights on Morgan's car, drawing their guns on the young man with post‑traumatic stress disorder sitting inside. Alone in his car, Morgan ended a phone call with his younger sister, and then ended his life with his own firearm.
Almost ten years later, on Sunday, 9 December 2018, Sergeant Samantha Baglin walked into the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Canberra. That day, she became the fourth AFP officer to take her own life in 18 months.
These two tragedies reflect how little has changed over the past decade for first responders experiencing mental health conditions.
The grief and personal anguish caused by these deaths is endless. Heartbroken families and friends, lives and futures lost. These first responders, and an unknown number of others like them, were people who protected and saved lives, but who did not get help when they themselves needed it most.
For every first responder who has taken his or her own life, there are others—their number unknown—who live approaching, near or on the brink of a mental health abyss, and others still who 'cope', not thinking their conditions are bad enough to warrant treatment. Some of them suffer in silence for years, until they are in one way or another unable to work. Some lose their families, friends and their homes. Some seek help, some do not. Some receive support when they ask for it, some do not. Some get better, and some never do. In many ways, their mental health concerns mirror those in the wider community, where the prevalence of mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly. The difference is that, unlike most other professions, first responders' jobs are known to discernibly increase the risk of mental illness—no plausible contrary argument has been made.
It was this increased risk and this higher incidence of mental health injuries experienced by her colleagues that drove Tasmanian intensive care paramedic Simone Haigh to push for this inquiry. Ms Haigh recognised the need for greater national leadership and coordination to improve the support for all first responders. The committee commends Ms Haigh for bringing this most serious matter to the attention of the Senate.
While emergency services bear a solemn responsibility for public safety, which they discharge under enormous pressure and considerable budgetary constraints, they also have an irrefutable duty of care towards the men and women who are on the front line of the emergency response: people who we expect to help us, to stand between us and danger or even death in our moments of vulnerability, desperation and distress, when all we can do is dial triple zero.
The committee firstly acknowledges the enormous public service and personal sacrifice our first responders provide to the Australian community. The committee also acknowledges the work done by some first response organisations in recent years and commends their leadership in accepting that mental health is a serious concern for their employees, and for some agencies, their volunteers. However, without results—results which must be palpable for first responders on the ground—policies risk being just words on paper. Much more needs to be done.
Despite notable efforts from a number of first response organisations to implement robust strategies to tackle the significant mental health challenges, the news is far from all good. Too many first responders speak of a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying in their work environments for their stories to be merely isolated incidents. Good management can mitigate the risk of mental illness in high-stress environments; bad management can make mental health problems far worse.
The committee is not comprised of mental health professionals, nor is it the committee's role to determine what is and is not appropriate in terms of treatment for first responders. And while the committee is not in a position to provide desperately needed redress to individuals, whose difficult experiences formed the backbone of this inquiry, it is the committee's hope that this report will help focus community attention on this important issue.
The committee extends its sincere gratitude to the individuals who shared their personal experience in order to inform this inquiry, and calls on Australian governments and their agencies to act on the recommendations in this report to ensure that first responders receive the support they need and which we, as a community, should willingly extend.
The human cost of inaction is too great.