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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10293

Senator MARSHALL (Victoria) (15:40): I present the report of the Education and Employment References Committee on the mental health of first responders, emergency workers and volunteers, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I rise to make some remarks on the report of the Senate Education and Employment References Committee on its inquiry into mental health conditions experienced by first responders.

First responders are the professionals the rest of us turn to and rely upon in our times of greatest urgency and distress. They are the highly trained officers who attend our medical emergencies, who go into burning houses, who stand between us and danger. They protect us and our families. Their presence and skills when we call 000 can mean the difference between life and death. Their working lives are spent navigating extreme circumstances the rest of us—if we are lucky—will rarely encounter. They perform a vital role in the community, and they are training to make critical decisions which will determine the course of people's lives.

But they are also people. They are men and women who are not, and cannot be, inoculated against the known risk of psychological injury caused by repeat exposure to significant trauma. Over the course of the inquiry the committee heard from many first responders and got a glimpse into their world, the things they see and experience. And those things they see and experience are remarkable both in scale and in substance. As put by one first responder, it is not a normal job. It is a job in which you engage with people having the worst, and sometimes last, days of their life, and you do so day in, day out, over many years. It is a job in which you may be required to place yourself in danger or be assaulted whilst trying to save lives. A job in which you witness catastrophic injuries up close, and in which you appear out of the blue to deliver the worst news imaginable to people's families.

Mental ill health is not like a broken arm, or like influenza. It does not announce its presence suddenly one day. The committee heard time and time again that it is hard to pinpoint a moment when a person's mental wellbeing begins to unravel. Instead, many witnesses told the committee that mental health is like a bucket which slowly fills, bit by bit, until it overflows, and it is impossible to say whether it was the first drop or the last which did the most damage. Even in the wider community, the conversation around mental health has only recently started to shift.

The committee had the opportunity to engage with a wide range of professionals in the mental health field, and the evidence they presented was unambiguous: first responders' work places them at an increased risk of developing serious mental health conditions—not least depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as an increased risk of suicide. Cumulative exposure to trauma—a core feature of first responders' work—can have a profound effect on mental health. This being the case, it is reasonable to expect that first response organisations should mitigate that risk by prioritising the health and wellbeing of their workers.

Unfortunately, first responders' lived experiences—related to the committee in both public and confidential submissions—tell a different story. They speak of an entrenched stigma around mental health and of a widely-held fear of reporting psychological injury to management. They speak of a culture of intimidation and bullying in some organisations, where those who report mental health conditions are treated like liabilities to be disposed of rather than helped. They speak of an adversarial culture which sees mental health injury as a weakness, rather than recognising the strength and self-awareness required in seeking help. And they tell of a system which treats them with indifference when they can no longer work and confronts them with an almost impenetrable wall of bureaucracy and endless hoops to jump through if they turn to workers compensation to get by. Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from this inquiry is how much poor management can exacerbate mental health conditions and cripple rather than assist an individual's recovery.

The committee noted the commendable efforts underway in some first-response organisations, which are implementing evidence based programs and initiatives to protect the wellbeing of their staff. We were heartened to hear several organisations admit the mistakes of the past and recognise that genuine cultural change takes time. There is a long way to go—however, we must as a community seize the momentum generated by this inquiry and demand that the mental health and wellbeing of first responders be taken seriously. Initiatives, guidelines and strategies are merely words on paper if they do not translate down the management chain into something palpable for workers. The committee therefore urges federal, state and territory governments and stakeholders at all levels to accept and implement the recommendations of this report without delay.

In presenting this report to the Senate, I would like to recognise the service of first responders around the country, and to thank each and every one of them. I would particularly like to thank the individuals who participated in this inquiry—those who told us of their darkest hours, and those who have suffered the incalculable grief of losing loved ones to suicide—many retelling and reliving their trauma in the knowledge that what happened to them in the past cannot be undone, but that sharing their experiences may help their colleagues and other families in the future. These are people who are hardwired to protect others and we, as a community, have a moral obligation to help them. As the committee concludes in its report: 'The human cost of inaction is too high.'

I put on the record my thanks to the ever professional committee secretariat in conducting at times what was quite a difficult inquiry but a very rewarding one. I also want to put on record my thanks to the other committee members, in particular to Senator Urquhart, who did much of the very heavy lifting in relation to this inquiry and really got down to some of the hard detail analysis of what was required. So my thanks particularly go to Senator Urquhart for this inquiry. I recommend and commend this inquiry and its report to the Senate.