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Mental health impacts on first responders could be worse than COVID-19 itself

The COVID-19 pandemic risks having a deep and lasting impact on Australia’s first responder community. 

New research highlighting alarming rates of anxiety, depression and burnout potentially leaves Australia with a scar that’s harder to heal than COVID-19 itself.  

Findings from Charles Sturt University (CSU) add weight to the frontline stories Fortem Australia is hearing from the health and law enforcement workers we support and care for every day. 

“Our team is at work in communities big and small from Melbourne to Brisbane,” says John Bale, Managing Director of Fortem Australia

“The paramedics, police officers, and fire fighters we see, talk of the real fear they have of bringing COVID home with them to their loved ones – some have taken to sleeping outside the family home to protect their family.” 

The CSU study of over 1,500 first responders also highlighted significant pressures around increased workloads, and a compounding anxiety related to a constantly changing work environment, access to PPE and clear communication and information.  

“Going into this, the first responder community was already showing higher signs of mental distress than the general population,” Mr Bale says. 

“What CSU found should disturb all Australians and requires immediate action.” 

Key findings from CSU: 

  • The proportion of respondents with severe depression and anxiety was 10 and 4 times higher (respectively) than the general population.
  • The level of workplace burnout was very high with over half showing high levels of emotional exhaustion (burnout). 40% of respondents are considering quitting their current job.  

“Our community can’t afford to lose these key people and the expertise, skill and empathy they offer, especially at this time,” Mr Bale says. 

“We have moral duty to listen and respond to their call for help and support.” 

The report makes eight recommendations that turn the powerful voice of first responders into actions. 

“Recommendations six and seven is what already inspires the work of Fortem Australia, and we are well placed to grow and deepen the impact we are having now in Victoria, NSW, ACT and Queensland,” Mr Bale says. 

“First responders are calling for a range of mental health support services that are made available not just within the workplace but outside work, within their social networks – supports that harness the power of community connection. 

“The day-to-day opportunities Fortem provides first responder families to connect socially are a great example and underpin our deeper clinical supports. 

“Since the Black Summer Bushfires close to 6,000 people have felt the benefit of our locally based wellbeing activities and over 500 psychology sessions have been conducted. 

“93% of participants say they felt the benefit of our approach; the CSU study is further proof that engaging those workplace social networks is critical in first responder mental health and fitness.” 

CSU also highlights the power of gratitude and the need to thank our first responder community, something Mr Bale believes every Australian can easily play a role in. 

“The study’s lead-researcher, Professor Russell Roberts calls on us all to acknowledge the good work of our frontline workers,” Mr Bale says. 

“Send a post card, get the kids to do some artwork, make a poster for your front window, share your thanks on social media – simple things we can all do during these challenging times to show our support.  

“And the thing with expressing gratitude is that the benefits also bounce back.” 

To send thanks and gratitude to your local first responders’ email: thankafirstresponder@fortemaustralia.org.au 

Fortem Australia thanks Charles Sturt University for their work in this space and looks forward to working with them in the future.  

The full CSU report on the ‘Mental health, wellbeing and work impacts of COVID-10 on first responders’ can be accessed HERE. 

Fortem Australia supports the mental health and wellbeing of first responders and their family members – the people who protect and care for our community. We offer free wellbeing activities, clinical support and transition and employment programs. 

Funded by the Commonwealth until 31 December 2021, our supports have grown in response to the Black Summer Bushfires of 2019/20. 

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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