Former AFP employee speaks out about the force's approach to mental health
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Former AFP employee speaks out about the force's approach to mental health

More than a year after Commissioner Andrew Colvin pledged to overhaul the culture of the Australian Federal Police, a damning report has found the force is still struggling to combat the stigmatisation of mental health issues.

The news comes as little surprise to Katie Tonacia, a Churchill Fellow and former Australian of the Year finalist, who co-founded Picking Up the Peaces in 2008 after watching her husband struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Katie Tonacia says she is not surprised by the findings of a damning report into mental health support within the AFP.

Katie Tonacia says she is not surprised by the findings of a damning report into mental health support within the AFP.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

"David had been deployed with the Australian Federal Police, gone into mission, and had come back completely and utterly changed," she said.

"He had suffered significant trauma and was diagnosed with PTSD later. It was quite an isolating condition back then."

AFP Whistleblower Katie Tonacia with her husband David Tonacia, a former AFP officer.

AFP Whistleblower Katie Tonacia with her husband David Tonacia, a former AFP officer.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos
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Last month the AFP released the findings of an independent review into the way the force supported officers with mental health issues.

Almost one in four of the survey's 2593 respondents were battling psychological distress, while 14 per cent had clinical depression symptoms and nine per cent had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Following the release of the AFP's internal report, the Australian National Audit Office released its own critical assessment of mental health treatment within the organisation.

The audit office found the AFP lacked the right mechanisms to address risks associated with mental health issues, and did not always screen officers for psychological suitably before placing them in high risks roles.

The results were hardly surprising, said Mrs Tonacia, who herself spent 10 years as an unsworn employee in the AFP and is now the chief executive of Picking Up the Peaces.

"I have mixed feelings about the report," she said.

"There is nothing in there that surprises me. I've seen the very best and the very worst of people in terms of how mental health is viewed in the AFP."

Picking Up the Peaces is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to raise awareness and support for those struggling with PTSD.

The 200 page report was prepared by the Phoenix Australia Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health, described by Mrs Tonacia as a "world-leading" team of researchers.

The review found that, while there might be an appropriate level of mental health support for staff, there was little coordination between the different areas and "little understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities".

"With respect to services provided by the AFP, there was general dissatisfaction with the employee assistance provider (EAP) and staff felt that the Psychological Support Services was not readily available to staff," the report read.

"The rehabilitation and compensation process for injured workers was seen as disjointed and unsupportive, adding to distress."

Any meaningful attempts to address this dysfunction and the stigma associated with mental health support within the federal police needed to start at the top, Mrs Tonacia said.

"There's a really great quote about leadership that goes, 'It matters what leaders do, or don't do. The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate'.

"I have mixed feelings in terms of the AFP having the ability to act on that. The problem they are going to face is that the culture [at the moment] is strong.

"[But]I would like to see the AFP take a very strong stand."

In addition to concerns around mental health support, the Phoenix study also identified a number of other cultural issues within the AFP.

These included a reluctance among some officers to embrace policies aimed at promoting women, and worries that the organisation would not embrace LGBTI staff.

"Stop the gender panic," one employee told the researchers.

"LGBTI members feel that it is not safe to come out at work, which is a source of stress that is not seen to be taken seriously by the organisation," researchers also noted.

The AFP's Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders was also unsurprised by the report's findings.

"I think if we're honest with ourselves, we knew that we had some work to do in this area and that's why we got Phoenix on board," she said in February.

"I think with the support services, and there are a number of them, and they've very good, but we really needed advice on a strategy on how to support the AFP for decades to come, rather than what we have now.

"So, absolutely there is a lot of work to be done."

President of the Australian Federal Police Association Angela Smith commended the force for undertaking the work, but encouraged them to act swiftly on its findings.

"The AFP now has a very real opportunity to change the way it approaches mental health issues, to allow its people to have meaningful and rewarding careers," Ms Smith said.

"The AFP owes it to all members from the day they join, to the day they leave, to do all it can to create an environment that encourages good mental health."

Steven Trask

Steven Trask is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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