Mental fitness with no strings attached

Greg and Colleen White (far left) on their Byron Bay getaway with other first responder families.

“People are always looking for the catch, and are perhaps a little stand-offish, about getting involved in something new,” says Greg White, a paramedic based in the Northern Rivers of NSW.

Greg and his family of five are new to the region and started attending Fortem Australia activities as a way of meeting people.

He is keen to see more first responder families taking part in the growing Fortem community in Northern NSW and South East Queensland.

“So many people struggle to make friends, especially with COVID. If you’ve got your normal friend network, that’s great. But if you’re struggling to meet people, or you just want to try something different, Fortem has been wonderful for us,” Greg says.

Greg grew up in Sydney and started his working life as an apprentice auto glazier but for the last 24 years has been a paramedic with NSW Ambulance; only moving to Northern NSW two years ago from the Shoalhaven.

“I’m not someone who enjoys being stuck in an office,” he says.

“I love meeting new people and talking to people. And I suppose it’s that ability to genuinely come home from a day at work and say – I actually helped someone today, I actually made a difference in people’s lives, that I really love about the job.

“And sometimes that might be the littlest thing like sitting down and making a cup of tea and having a chat to a ninety-year-old lady, through to delivering a baby, or holding the hand of somebody who’s dying and having their last few breaths.”

COVID-19 has added a significant load to the work and pressures on first responders and their families.

“It is frustrating when you hear people complaining about wearing a mask to the supermarket, when potentially I could take COVID home to my family,” Greg says.

“There’s enough stress on the job day to day just making sure you’re safe and you’re patient is safe and dealing with all that.

“Now I worry about the safety of my family as well. A lot of us shelter our families from what goes on at work, but this is one issue that you can’t shelter them from.”

Greg and his partner have three kids, two teens and one in their mid-twenties, all living at home. In these days of lockdowns and quarantines, Greg’s work as a first responder has extra implications for his family.

“I have to ask them to be extra careful, because if they have to isolate as a result of being a close contact, then I can’t go to work and that brings down the function of the healthcare system,” he says.

It’s extra pressure on families who already carry more than the average.

“My wife has been around emergency services her whole life, her dad was high up in the rural fire brigade and her brother’s a helicopter paramedic and other family members are in the fire brigade,” Greg says.

“I’m very lucky to have her, she’s helped me get through my jobs on a day to day basis through 24 years. But it is an increased stress, you do worry about them and visa versa.”

The wider first responder family is also a support Greg draws on as he manages his mental fitness.

“They’re like a second family, you know each other’s families inside out. Everyone’s there for each other,” Greg says.

“I’ve got a really good friend who works for the Australian Federal Police. We’ve been friends since we left school. We both know that a phone call is all it takes and we can pick up the phone at anytime and have a chat.

“Sometimes it’s easier to chat with the people you work with, but other times it’s not, sometimes you just need to talk to fairly independent people that are outside that environment.”

Fortem Australia has allowed Greg and his family to build those relationships within their new community and spend time together away from the pressure of being connected to a first responder agency.

“When we first got here, it was pretty easy to just park yourself on the lounge and before you knew it the day had disappeared, you could waste days really easily,” he says.

“Getting active and getting out of the house – even the simple coffee catch ups, have been wonderful for us.

“We’ve been to Currambine Wildlife Park with Felicity and the local Fortem crew, we had a really good weekend away at Byron Bay. It was a sensational weekend – no children, just to catch up with some adults and spend that sort of quality time together and bond was really good.

“Wakeboarding is something we probably wouldn’t have tried without Fortem. The family loved it – we actually ended up going and doing it as a family again later on because we enjoyed it so much. It got people out of their comfort zone – it feels good to do different things.”

Making time for exercise, especially golf deepens Greg’s mental fitness, “I just get out in the open environment for three or four hours and just get away from it. That’s a big deal I think – having your head out of the job.”

Fortem’s Wellbeing Activities Calendar is updated weekly with new face to face and virtual events for the first responder community in Northern NSW and South East Queensland, chances are you’ll meet Greg and his family at one of them.

“All I can say is come and have a look, come say hello, come get involved and meet new people,” he says.

Greg White on the job as a NSW paramedic in PPE.

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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