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Former AFP psychologists call for agency to reinstate peer support program

Former Australian Federal Police psychologists are calling on the agency to reinstate a peer support program they say was crucial to internal mental health support.

The push is supported by mental health experts and the federal police union.

The AFP is recruiting new welfare officers across the country as part of a wider mental health reform. The agency's chief medical officer, who was appointed last year to oversee the restructure, said the initiative would be similar to a peer support program.

ACT Policing has dedicated welfare officers, who support staff with "emotional first aid" and refer them to external services, but their work has no specific peer-to-peer component.

Lacey Clews and Heidi Horvath were psychologists with the AFP for between eight and 10 years from 2004. During that time they helped set up a wellbeing peer support program. Peer support officers either had experienced mental health issues or were passionate about supporting those who were struggling. They completed training in understanding trauma-related illness and regularly discussed strategies  to support their colleagues to speak out.

Ms Clews said the program was in place for about two years from 2006, when there were also dedicated welfare officers in every state and territory.

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"Hierarchy chose to withdraw a whole host of services away from wellbeing services including the removal of the welfare positions from the regions, and expecting psychologists to primarily do their work from the same location at workstations in AFP headquarters," she said. There was an outsourced counselling hotline at these headquarters.

"Then the peer support program never really gained a foothold, because although we had great feedback there were not enough resources put towards it. It was really disappointing for me because I believed in what it was."

Both Ms Clews and Ms Horvath said the AFP's re-structuring of wellbeing services was a step forward, but said a standalone peer-support program should also be considered.

The AFP's chief medical officer, who didn't want to be named, said the welfare officers would provide some peer support.

"This network is an internationally recognised type of network, very similar to a peer support network although has some fundamental differences that really will be of greater benefit to the AFP," she said.

"They will be trusted members, some fulltime and some part-time members, and someone who really understands the challenges that the guys and girls will be facing on the ground."

President of the Australian Federal Police Association, Angela Smith, said the scrapping of the peer support program years ago affected the wellbeing of both current and former members.

"The recent move by the AFP to instate welfare officers nationwide was welcomed by the AFPA and will go some way to address and improve mental health conditions in the workplace," she said.

"But the AFPA would support the introduction of additional networks, like a peer-to-peer network, that would provide members with the skills, understandings, attitudes and strategies to improve mental, social and emotional wellbeing of their colleagues."

Nick Arvanitis from beyondblue, which runs runs a mental health services program for emergency workers, said research showed peer support networks helped workers come forward and seek support. The ACT Emergency Services Agency is in the process of implementing a peer support program.

"Peer support is a key starting point to addressing mental health, and we know they are beneficial," he said.

"But we know there are barriers, such as stigma, to emergency staff accessing a range of support. Organisations also need to start addressing those barriers."