In New York, nearly 2000 uniformed members of the NYPD have so-far tested positive to COVID-19, with 13 losing their lives. Over 7000 police have called in sick. This number is inflating every day. Now two Australian Border Force officers have tested positive. Around the world, police and first responders are on the front lines and the war against this pandemic will have significant impacts on them and their families.
Black Summer bushfires, floods and now COVID-19 have stretched our first responders. While protecting us from these catastrophes they have also continued to do their ‘normal’ daily duties. Currently 000 calls in NSW are equivalent to New Year’s Eve. Due to the pandemic, crime rates will rise, and domestic violence will skyrocket. First responders will be stretched more than ever. But it is not just the first responder, it also their families that carry this burden.
The trauma experienced at work doesn’t just stay in the workplace. Research conducted in 2018, before our nation’s experience with bushfires and pandemic, shows that one in two first responders are impacted by a traumatic event in the workplace. It is only natural that the frustration, anger and trauma makes its way into the home, affecting the family unit. Families may experience increased mental health conditions within the family unit, along with feelings of loneliness and poor social relations. Trauma can have intergenerational impacts that are felt for generations.
It is not just trauma that a first responder can take home. This time another invisible and deadly enemy, COVID-19, could also enter their home. Unlike many Australians, First Responders cannot work from home; in fact, their job often puts them on the front line of this pandemic response. While agencies are attempting to reduce the risk of infection, including the offer of free accommodation to frontline workers in New South Wales first responders in other states, like health workers, are still at significant risk. So are their families.
This risk is weighing heavily on many families. While trauma can take years to manifest in the home, the risk of infection is imminent. The NYPD example highlights this very real threat. While these families will endure, the toll will be immense. Most assessments of the mental health impacts of the pandemic on Australia see it far surpass Black Summer. First Responders and their families will have carried a significant burden and are at significant risk.
In a perfect world no first responder, or their family, would have their mental health and wellbeing negatively impacted by doing their job of protecting and defending their community. Sadly, our world is far from perfect.
When COVID-19 is over, we need to ensure that we build a new way to recognise first responders and their families. Since late last year they have been asked to do more than ever before expected, and each time they step up to keep our communities safe. They do it without fanfare; they do it to protect us, to protect their community. They are quite literally putting their own lives, and that of their family, on the line.
In the meantime, we need to stay home. We need to do whatever we can to help those who are on the front-lines of this pandemic and their families who silently accept the risk.
Tony Walker, ASM is the Chief Executive Officer of Ambulance Victoria and a member of the Fortem Australia Advisory Board.
John Bale is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of Fortem Australia. He is also the Co-Founder and former CEO of Veteran’s charity, Soldier On.
Fortem Australia runs programs to improve the mental health and wellbeing of Australia’s Law Enforcement, National Security and First Responder communities. Fortem’s programs focus on wellbeing forged through connection and are designed to strengthen mental and emotional health whilst assisting to build protective factors.