***Trigger warning – this article and video discuss first responder PTSD***
“I live with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” James Maskey, told the recent Fortem mental health summit, Beyond Duty – what is the bigger picture in first responder wellbeing?
“I know how damaging repeated exposure to trauma can be. I know what it’s like to live with mental health difficulties, wanting to solve my problems on my own, fearing adverse career impacts, fearing being a burden to others, and fearing that I will be isolated by colleagues, friends and family if I disclose my mental health challenges,” he shared.
“My lived experience confirms what we already know about the first responder sector: emergency services work often comes with a heavy personal cost. I also know how supportive working in the first responder community can be. We rely so much on each other, and we build friendships that can last a lifetime. I know how powerful and protective it can be to have strong family and strong social connections.”
Working in my dream job
“In February 2010, at the age of 20, I began my first responder career,” James said.
“My first year as a police officer was a baptism by fire, being exposed to elements of the community that I had not been exposed to previously. I attended countless critical incidents where firearms were drawn, investigating and responding to murders, suicides, home invasions, domestic violence, fatal traffic crashes and sexual assaults. All of these were incidents that resulted in high stress and high adrenaline.
“I became addicted to the adrenaline rush of being first on the scene to a job.
“About a year later, I remember feeling fatigued for the first time. I put it down to the adrenaline of high stress situations, and the toll of shift work. I ignored the exhaustion, and compensated with sugar and caffeine hits to get through each day or night shift.
“Without understanding the emotional and physical depth that was slowly building, I found it difficult to sleep, and I was also having mood swings, often easily irritated at the slightest inconvenience. And in late 2012, when I returned home from a suicide incident, I began to experience nightmares. Around this time, I also cried and drank a lot.
“I didn’t have the skills to talk about any of it, and I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I was only 23, and I didn’t realise that something was wrong. I held a great deal of shame and self-stigma.”
My experience didn’t match my expectations
“I had thought that police officers were strong, resilient individuals who wore a blue suit of Teflon – they were not flawed or vulnerable. It goes back to that old, tired cliché of the emergency services worker as a superhero: to keep us safe, you must be made of steel,” James told the Beyond Duty Summit.
“This didn’t match with what I was experiencing.
“In 2013, as I tried to stop my emotions from affecting my supportive partner, I experienced a relationship breakdown. My partner would tell you of the agony of watching this change happen and the struggle to keep me communicating.
“It took me a while to seek professional assistance to help make sense of what I was experiencing. About four years into my policing career, I finally took the leap and booked in with my GP to ask for a referral to see a psychologist. During many months of intensive cognitive behavioural therapy, I relayed the trauma that I experienced in my role and how it had affected my professional and personal life.
“It was during these sessions that the psychologist told me I had PTSD.”
The diagnosis meant that I could find support and get better
“I tried to understand the diagnosis, and worked on repairing relationships with those I had pushed away. My partner and I got back together and, after many years of love and work, we are married and have a daughter,” James said.
“I remained in the police service for a couple more years, and was promoted into the child protection and investigation unit. It was my dream job, and such important work that I was proud to do. Unfortunately, it only worsened my symptoms of PTSD, and in August 2015 I left the police service.
“In addition to continuing to see a psychologist, I turned to fitness to see me through, and competed in ultra-endurance events. I eventually used this as a platform to share my story and to support the lived experiences and mental health challenges of others in the first responder sector.
“My life was significantly improving, and continued to get better.
“It is really common to experience mental health challenges. We need to retire the unhelpful stereotype of the first responder as a superhero. Instead, we need to realise that it’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to seek support.”
If you or someone you know needs support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. If there is immediate danger, call 000.
There’s much more to this story, click play to watch…
More about our speaker:
James Maskey – Engagement Manager, Fortem Australia.
James Maskey is a retired front-line Queensland Police Officer with a service history including General Duties and the Child Protection & Investigation Unit.
In 2013, he was diagnosed with PTSD and passionately shares his own lived experience of mental health difficulties to encourage help-seeking behaviours.
Previously part of Beyond Blue’s Police and Emergency Services Program, James now leads Fortem Australia’s engagement with first responder agencies.
His input was key in shaping Fortem’s new Transition & Employment Program that was launched in late August 2021 by the Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews.
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.