One in four Australian Federal Police members suffer psychological distress
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One in four Australian Federal Police members suffer psychological distress

Almost one in four members of the Australian Federal Police suffers from psychological distress while almost one in 10 has had suicidal thoughts, an independent report has revealed.

Fourteen per cent show symptoms of clinical depression and 9 per cent exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Australian Federal Police members were reluctant to discuss mental health issues with in-house support due to concerns about confidentiality and any impact on their career, the report found.

Australian Federal Police members were reluctant to discuss mental health issues with in-house support due to concerns about confidentiality and any impact on their career, the report found.

The review, which included a staff survey, focus groups and direct contact with overseas staff, revealed shortcomings in the AFP's mental health support.

While AFP staff working in high-stress areas such as counter-terrorism, child exploitation and overseas deployment faced particular psychological risks the report found that, generally, members across the board felt they had "inadequate resources and excessive demands in their day-to-day work", adding to their stress.

AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin is committed to improving and protecting his members' mental health, according to the force's chief medical officer, Dr Katrina Sanders.

AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin is committed to improving and protecting his members' mental health, according to the force's chief medical officer, Dr Katrina Sanders.

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They were also reluctant to seek help in their workplace for mental health issues, with members concerned about confidentiality and any impact on their career.

"Overall, the review found that considerable work is needed to create a workplace environment within the AFP that is conducive to good mental health," a document handed to staff on Tuesday read.

"In particular, staff need to feel supported at a local level (by supervisors) and to see practical demonstration that the organisation's stated commitment to improving the mental health of staff is genuine.

The AFP commissioned the Phoenix Australia Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health at the University of Melbourne to undertake the mental health review.

AFP Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders says the organisation knew it had a lot of work to do to improve mental health support for its members.

AFP Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders says the organisation knew it had a lot of work to do to improve mental health support for its members.

Photo: supplied

The review found 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.

Forty-five per cent of the AFP's workforce responded to a survey as part of the independent review of its mental health services.

Forty-five per cent of the AFP's workforce responded to a survey as part of the independent review of its mental health services.

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

The AFP's Chief Medical Officer Dr Katrina Sanders said the survey had a 45 per cent response rate from the 6540-strong workforce. The results on mental health injury had been on par with a similar survey of Australian Defence Force members.

The report said a high priority for the AFP should be "substantially redevelop its staff support system" around mental health issues. Dr Sanders said the report's findings were not a surprise.

"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.

"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."

Dr Sanders said the AFP workforce was a snapshot of the community so similar mental health concerns were expected.

She said the review followed a draft mental health strategy undertaken by the AFP in 2016 and a determination by AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin to improve and protect the mental health of his staff.

"The commissioner is so committed to their health and well-being, that he really wanted independent and expert advice," Dr Sanders said.

"I think it's easy to take a framework that can be applied to many organisations and apply it your own, but the AFP is a high-risk agency and that is never going to change.

"So getting that independent, expert advice from Phoenix Australia, meant that our strategy would be unique to AFP, directly relevant to AFP and, also, it allowed all members to have input into the strategy; that it would be built by the people who would use it."

The report found that of those who responded to the survey:

  • almost 25% reported experiencing moderate to high levels of current psychological distress;
  • 14% reported clinically significant symptoms of depression
  • 9% reported symptoms consistent with a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis
  • 6% reported clinically significant anxiety
  • 9% reported problematic alcohol use
  • 9% reported suicidal thoughts (but the report said that should not be confused with "suicidal intent").

Surprisingly, Dr Sanders said despite the high-stress nature of AFP work in areas such as child exploitation and counter-terrorism, staff in those areas did not report higher levels of mental health distress; likely because they were closely monitored.

"We adopt a rigorous, risk-based approach to our support. So we have very stringent psychological and physical health screening before people can even come into the organisation," she said.

"Then in those high-risk roles, they have additional support. Depending on the role, there may be pre-entry screening, periodic screening when they're in the role, and follow-up screening once they leave.... I'm confident we're doing our very best in those high-risk areas,"

Dr Sanders maintained the AFP also had a lower suicide rate than the general community.

"It's tragic whenever a member of the AFP or any law enforcement agency dies from whatever means and, certainly, the AFP is not immune to suicide," she said.

"But we know that our rates of suicide are lower than the general community and that is in large part due to the number of supports available to the members already."

As to the problems of inadequate resourcing and excessive work demands reported by members, Dr Sanders said that was an eternal issue.

"I think that's the nature of the law enforcement agency. There's no ability for police to say, 'No'. There's a community expectation they will be there to respond. It's about making sure that they support available to them can kind of buffer that onset," she said.

"Those work demands are unlikely to go away. "

Dr Sanders said Phoenix Australia had recommended services be improved and implemented over five years. She said the AFP had already started putting in place welfare officers across its system.

  • If you require assistance contact Lifeline 13 11 14.
Megan Doherty

Megan Doherty is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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