On the day that Fortem Australia drops in on Josh and Shelly Lavender, the skies above their home on the NSW Far South Coast are brilliant blue.
Wednesdays are precious to the couple because their two little ones are at day care and if the roster works out, they get to have some time at home together around work.
Both are fresh faced when they open the door – perhaps hiding the long shift that Josh has just finished. An armed robbery at the local bowling club had him on duty till 4am.
Josh is 36 years old and been a police officer for 16 years. Shelly runs her own graphic design business from home, she grew up here. The family moved to the Eurobodalla a few years ago to be closer to their support crew – Shelly’s parents.
“I used to live in Surry Hills in the centre of Sydney,” Josh says.
“My mates told me one night that one of their girlfriends was having a party and I knew there’d be some single ladies there.
“And before you know it, love blossomed.”
Shelly adds, “We met at the bar and have been together ever since.”
“We’ve travelled the world together. Before we had kids, now we are on to the next stage of life.”
Before moving to this piece of paradise, Josh spent a long time working as a detective targeting organised crime with NSW Police.
The good and bad of that work travels with him and sits in the background of his current day-to-day work in the small regional communities he now serves.
“Trauma continues daily as a first responder, you never know what that day is going to bring,” he says.
“It’s important to recognise that [being a first responder] is an extremely difficult job. And we are humans with families that we go home to daily.
“And that we have tough times, and we work through them like every other human.
“That’s tough for people in the local community to understand and interpret.”
Josh accepts that some first responders don’t understand the impacts of cumulative trauma and that some of his colleagues and the wider community brush it off with a mindset of “you’re a police officer, what do you expect, you signed up for this, it’s all in a day’s work.”
One experience from his Sydney time looms large in Josh’s mind.
“For me, the first time I really had my wellbeing challenged within the police was unfortunately in 2010, when I was part of a search warrant team,” Josh remembers.
“As we entered that property, my friend and colleague was unfortunately shot and killed as a result.
“For me, it’s been years of trying to deal with the devastating effects of that incident.
“From there, almost 11 years later, to where I am today, I still have those same issues of dealing with day-to-day activities within the police – whether it be a death by natural causes, or suicide or a car accident.
“Unfortunately, for me, the trauma leading back to that day is still very much current. And it’s a trigger for me dealing with those type of incidents.”
To his credit, Josh is active with his mental fitness and in addressing that trauma – driven by his love for family, commitment to his work mates and service to the community.
Shelly has seen Josh wrestle with the weight of his work and the ripple effects of that one day 11 years ago.
“I’m really proud of Josh, because he has had to deal with some incredibly difficult things over his career,” Shelly says.
“With that incident, many of the guys were truly effected by it.
“I’m not gonna lie – it has certainly placed a huge strain on our relationship.
“I am very, very grateful because we’re in a good place now.
“But there’s been times where, you know, it’s looked like maybe it was not going to work out.”
The taxing nature of changing rosters and shift work, mixed with the needs of having a young family add to the stresses and can delay coping strategies.
“It’s a very difficult sort of thing to deal with,” Shelly says.
“It’s a bit of a recipe for disaster, but I’m incredibly proud of Josh. He’s still dealing with it.”
A recent catch-up highlighted the need for ongoing mental health vigilance for Josh.
“I met up with a mate who was with me during that operation. And 11 years later, unfortunately, he’s really struggled in life and is only now – 11 years later, has started being able to slowly get his way back into the workplace,” he says.
“His whole life has had to be rebuilt as a result of some of the trauma that we’ve endured during our career.”
Josh and Shelly welcome initiatives from NSW Police to support staff better and look forward to continued consultation and input from staff.
“I’d like every [first responder] organisation to say – look we’re open to what you believe would be required to get you back to where you need to be,” Josh says.
“Look after your staff and in return they will look after you and meet the needs of the community.
“Trauma is ongoing. You can’t just sign away and say – I’m leaving the police and it’s all done with.
“You’ve got to monitor it for the rest of your life.”
The role of employers in supporting impacted team members is growing and developing constantly, with support from charities like Fortem Australia and our wellbeing activities, psychology support, care coordination and transition and employment program.
However, Josh and Shelly’s experience highlights the power of the individual in shaping their own mental fitness in response to trauma.
Josh believes learning how to look after yourself is critical.
“So for me, I’ve learned that I have to look after my physical wellbeing as well as mental,” he says.
“I need to monitor what I eat, I can’t drink coffee, because it makes me feel anxious. I need to make sure I get sleep and exercise. And if I don’t, I’ll go through a bout of anxiety and depression and have to work my way back out of that.
“I’ve had to educate myself over time.
“My release is I go freediving. I’m underwater, no one’s yelling and screaming, there’s no issues. There can’t be any dramas. It’s just me and the sea animals.
“The boys at work will go and catch lobsters, and before a night shift we will bring that lobster in and cook up ‘lober-nese’ – it’s beautiful, just imagine spaghetti bolognese.
“We try and do that as much as we can.”
Josh and Shelly are also active in the growing first responder community Fortem Australia is facilitating in the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley, which adds a welcome layer of casual, social connection to any psychology support or care coordination.
“Fortem has really helped us rebuild our relationship.” Shelly says.
“We did the Fortem pasta night in Bermagui and it became date night with Josh.
“That was when we were coming out of a very tough time in our marriage.
“And to just have that one-on-one time, leave the kids behind and do an activity for a couple of hours and then just go have a drink afterwards. It was wonderful. I feel like it really connected us again, as a couple.
“And then the other Fortem experience we had was a family photoshoot. That was lovely, because we could include the kids and just reconnect.
“Even though we have these workplace issues, and it’s all over the place, if we know there’s something coming up in a couple of months, we just block that as a day off and do something together.
“That’s really helped us a lot.”
The clock is ticking on our conversation with Josh and Shelly; Josh is back at work this afternoon, following up on last nights armed robbery and the local lady that was threatened.
“It’s hard to give advice to others, but I’d simply say, try to be aware of your own feelings and environment,” Josh says.
“Prioritise what’s important to you in life. For me, I am gonna say – family. And if your family ever say to you – your moods might not be appropriate, then listen to them and put them first.
“The jobs not everything. Listen to your loved ones because they’re the ones who are actually going to be there for you during the hard times.”
To get involved in upcoming Fortem events check our Wellbeing Activities Calendar, you’ll also find mental health resources for first responders and their families in the Fortem Resource Library and via Peak Fortem. Fortem Australia also offers psychology support for eligible first responders and family members. Call 1300 33 95 94 to find out more.