A support program successfully adopted by NSW police four years ago in response to a swath of suicides and work-related trauma in its ranks is seen as offering a potential model for the Australian Federal Police as it attempts to grapple with the recent suicide deaths of two federal agents in the basement of its Barton headquarters.
Backup For Life is funded by NSW Police Legacy and the NSW government and offers a range of member services including counselling and financial assistance.
Australian Federal Police Association president Angela Smith, whose organisation represents 4000 AFP members based largely in the ACT but also scattered in capital city offices around Australia and 42 posts across the globe, has met with the Backup team and found elements of its program that would benefit her members.
The federal police have their own internal officer welfare service Safe Place, however, it has suffered a significant backlog due to the heavy caseload on the department. The association is also aware of federal agents who have avoided reporting their mental health and wellbeing issues to Safe Place for fear of being stigmatised.
While the AFP was restrained in its official response to the tragic suicide death of an AFP sergeant last weekend, a statement said that while there were "... unique considerations in the delivery of health and wellbeing services for high-risk organisations such as the AFP", it "... will consider measures that may contribute to ... improvements".
A core service of the NSW program is assisting police moving from operational duties into retirement or alternative employment but it is now experiencing a huge increase in demand for its services from those serving officers still "in the job" because of the range of support it offers.
Esther McKay, a former NSW police forensic pathologist and now the project coordinator, was badly affected by work-related post-traumatic stress disorder and wrote about her confronting experiences in her 2006 book, Crime Scene. She was involved in police post-trauma support before joining Backup.
Ms McKay said that having a psychotherapist who was a former serving police officer attached to the team had been a vital adjunct and she was aware of AFP officers using Backup services in preference to their own network.
"The AFP is currently experiencing the type of spike in trauma and suicide-related issues which affected NSW Police some years ago and which led to our program being set up," Ms McKay said.
"We are now coming into our fourth year and we will be looking to grow the program with our next funding round.
"In NSW, police and government identified the problem and got it fixed. I've spoken to Angela [Smith] about our program several times and we would be happy to help out if there was an appetite to set up something similar for the AFP."
Strong momentum gathered for the NSW well-being program after the formation of a Facebook page for the "Forgotten 300", supporting officers with work-related trauma and mental health issues. The page had 54,000 followers but was taken down in 2016 after NSW Police expressed concern about posts which it considered detrimental to the "health and well-being of particular serving officers".
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