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Beyond Duty – New research highlights the needs of first responder families & calls for action.

All ‘Beyond Duty’ artworks by Phillip Marsden and Ken Chung, our digital scribes from KPMG.

Mental health research is looking closely at first responders, and one team is working on a topic that is close to us here at Fortem: the families of first responders. 

In a new study from the University of Western Australia and Flinders University, families of first responders are being interviewed about their experiences. They are speaking of their responsibilities in supporting the first responder, and calling for more support themselves. 

Dr David Lawrence, Principal Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, gave us an insight to this soon-to-be-released research during the Fortem mental health summit, Beyond Duty – what is the bigger picture in first responder wellbeing? 

Families are well-placed to spot the early signs of mental health issues in a first responder. These early signs are vital, because the sooner they seek help the sooner they can recover. 

Those early signs often look like a change in behaviour, and those changes can be more obvious at home than at work. 

“One of the issues that has come out of the survey is that first responders experience a lot of change in postings and in chains of command, so the person who is their current manager may not necessarily have a history of their behaviour,” Dr Lawrence explains.

“They don’t know that the way the first responder is behaving now is different from a year or two years ago. Whereas family members have the ability to identify changes in behaviour that might be concerning.”  

Those signs may be an indication of a range of mental health challenges, including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression or PTSD. 

When a family member understands the challenges that a first responder may experience, and understands how to support them, the first responder’s ability to seek help can be improved. A family that is literate in mental health would also be well-placed to better manage the impact of the first responder’s mental health condition on the entire family unit. 

“(Mental health literacy) is an important factor, and one of the steps forward is for first responder agencies to improve the level of support and education that we provide to family members,” says Dr Lawrence. 

Supporting a first responder can come at a cost to families. Dr Lawrence says, “When someone joins the emergency services, so does their family. But their family doesn’t have the same benefits or organisational support.” 

“Families have told us that they don’t have contact with the agency, and they don’t understand what the agency might be able to provide in terms of support (for the first responder or for themselves).” 

As an urgent call to action, family members are asking for support. 

“Family members are asking for a high level of support or engagement. Some ideas include a support portal and information available to family members, and acknowledgement of the role that family members play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of people who work in these jobs.” 

Fortem Australia exists to support the mental health and wellbeing of first responder families. Our range of services include wellbeing activities and support from our team of psychologists

There’s much more to this conversation, click play to watch…

More about our speaker:

Dr David Lawrence – Principal Research Fellow, University of Western Australia.

Dr David Lawrence and his team at the University of Western Australia conducted the ‘Answering the Call’ study on behalf of Beyond Blue, surveying over 20,000 employees, volunteers and former employees across 33 Australian Ambulance, Police, Fire & Rescue, Rural Fire and SES agencies.

‘Answering the Call’ provided the first national evidence of the mental health and wellbeing of employees and volunteers in the police and emergency services sector.

His UWA team is currently conducting a follow-up study, ‘After the Fires’ to examine the impacts of responding to the 2019/2020 Black Summer Bushfires on the wellbeing of first responders and their families.

Further recordings from ‘Beyond Duty’ will be published to the Fortem Australia website over the coming weeks. The community is invited to share those recourses widely, be agents for change themselves and keep the conversation and connection going.

Fortem activities, events and community engagements are designed to support the mental fitness of our first responder families. Read more about Our Approach.
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