Two years of building the mental fitness of first responders and their families – but so much more to do.

John Bale, Managing Director, Fortem Australia.

World Mental Health Day this year marks two years of Fortem Australia, a charity that supports the mental health and wellbeing of first responders and their families –  people who protect and care for our community.

“We have achieved so much since first launching on October 10, 2019,” says John Bale, Managing Director, Fortem Australia.

“Over 12,000 people have registered for one of our wellbeing activities, around 250 people have accessed our clinical support services, and 93% of participants report that their mental health has improved after contact with Fortem.

“But our work only serves to highlight the deep need that remains.”

Every day, more than 300,000 first responders keep our communities safe. We know that more than half of all emergency responders are deeply impacted by the traumas they face in the course of their duties.

“The first responder community has higher rates of psychological distress, higher rates of diagnosis for mental health conditions, and higher rates of suicidal thinking and planning than the general adult population,” John says.

“There is growing concern around the impact suicide is having within the first responder community. Australia has accepted the need for action in the defence community, but voices are growing louder in the first responder community.

“Collectively we have a moral duty to act and support these men, women and families, they give so much to our community – more so in the last two years in light of our Black Summer, COVID-19, and ongoing natural disasters.”

A recent study by Charles Sturt University (CSU) highlighted the impact being felt by the first responder community during the pandemic.

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. 

“Before the challenges of the last two years, the first responder community was already showing higher signs of mental distress than the general population,” John says.

“First responders are calling for a range of mental health support services to be made more 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 are great examples and underpin our deeper clinical supports. It’s mental health by stealth – we get people together, we do fun activities that connect people, so that they can talk about these things, can better recognise the warning signs and easily access deeper support if needed.”

Fortem’s recent Beyond Duty Summit, added weight to this growing conversation.

This online event heard from every level of the first responder community, over 1,400 people took part on the day.

“The powerhouse role that family and social connections play in wellbeing and mental fitness was really evident and reinforces the importance we place on those relationships through our wellbeing activitiesclinical supports and new Transition & Employment Program,” John says.

“The people we heard from spoke of the need to reduce the gap between work and family for first responders – the two are intertwined and need to be seen as such and respected.”

Fortem Australia is funded by the Commonwealth Government to provide wellbeing and mental health services to first responders and their family members. We currently operate across metropolitan and regional Queensland, NSW, ACT and Victoria.

Fortem is hoping to extend these supports through proposed new funding in 2022.

“The job of a first responder is not normal and needs extra support, thinking, and organisational frameworks,” John says.

“Equally, what we see every day is the power of the individual to shape their own mental fitness. With the support of government and the community Fortem will continue to support these important people.”

What mental health by stealth looks like…

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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