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The path to a preventative mental health program in the law enforcement environment

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The Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) represents the professional, industrial and social interest of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and law enforcement employees across a range of agencies.  

As an autonomous sub-branch of the Police Federal of Australia (PFA), the AFPA is the only branch which proudly supports over 4,000 members drawn from police officers and civilian employees.

With a small workforce the AFPA provides a lot of support to its members, especially in the ever-expanding welfare environment.

AFPA President Angela Smith said that the mental and physical welfare of the AFPA members and AFP employees is an ever-increasing role and it’s a role that the AFPA has had to adopt and learn rather quickly.

“Traditionally the role of the AFPA, like most associations or unions, has been in the industrial relations environment, and while still an important aspect of our business, we’ve had to expand our horizons and become involved in the welfare environment.”

“Mental Health issues of employees are becoming a serious issue for management for all police services across Australia, and most likely, across the world. On the surface, there is a lot of talk and campaigning about mental health awareness, but under that, there isn’t an array of programs for members to participate in to receive the support they require from the law enforcement organisations. It seems to be this space that the associations and unions are having to play a role in.”

“A large part of the problem comes down to funding. Police forces and services have limited funding, and when financial pressures descend on the organisations, it’s the corporate areas and usually welfare programs that are first cut to find funding for operational activities.”

“The AFPA really ramped up its role in welfare role over the past two years. Four AFP police officers committed suicide within the workplace over a two-year span, and we were seeing an increase in the number of members approaching the AFPA for assistance in the mental health welfare environment.”

“The AFPA isn’t a huge union and we have limited funding available to us, but with the four workplace suicides and increased reporting we knew that something had to change, and we had to break the cycle.”

“As part of this change, we knew that we needed preventative mental health programs. The AFP had started some of its own initiatives, but we knew that they weren’t as successful as they could be. This was down to a number of factors, but ultimately the biggest thing we learnt was that police officers don’t want to talk to people within in the organisation out of fear of repercussions or outcomes that may hinder their careers.”

“We also found that police officers want to talk to people with experience in the law enforcement environment. Policing is a unique environment, you can’t replicate it and you can’t pretend to have working in it. It really is one of those environments where you have to ‘walk the talk’.”

“With all of this in mind, the AFPA commenced talking with an organisation called OzHelp. OzHelp delivers evidence-based suicide prevention, physical and mental health training and support programs to thousands of people within multiple industries across Australia.”

“We knew that engaging with OzHelp was a big step forward, but ultimately we knew that a program as significant and far reaching as what we wanted to achieve would cost money. The AFPA isn’t a huge associate or union like the CFMEU or CPSU that both easily have over 100,000 members each, we have just over 4,000 members with a limited revenue stream, but we knew that we needed to find the finance to fund the program and start assisting AFP employees and AFPA members.”

“We were lucky that we have a good relationship with the Shadow Minister for Justice Clare O’Neil MP. We were able to pitch the idea for an external mental health program to her and she saw the positives that this would bring to the AFP.”

“It was only a few weeks ago, when Shadow Minister Clare O’Neil MP made the game changing announcement, committing $5 million to a dedicated mental health program to support frontline AFP members if the Australian Labor Party can win Government at the upcoming election.”

“To receive that announcement was fantastic because I know just how much the AFPA members and AFP employees need an independent, outside the organisation, preventative mental health program. People are just holding on, struggling day in and day out and fearful of self-reporting and not seeking help they need. Fingers crossed, we can give them this option in the future.”

“The Australian Labor Party commitment has given us hope that one day, the ‘Aware and Alive’ mental health program, as we have named it, will become a reality.”

“This journey and being involved in a number of mental health welfare issues within my membership has re-enforced to me that your workforce and people really are the backbone of your business, organisation or public service department, and that as a member of management and a workplace leader, we need to look after them.”

“The costs to businesses and organisation when your workforce is injured, physically or mentally is enormous and you probably don’t know the toll until someone falls over. I really am urging the executive and leadership of any businesses or organisation to invest money and time into the mental health of their staff.”

“It’s important to give your workforce options, people aren’t sheep, they are individuals that need preventative, ongoing programs that offer a variety of different pathways. What works for one person may not work for another, and importantly, rebuilding someone’s mental health takes time. You can’t nor should you expect someone to bounce back immediately. Compassion and understand in the workplace are critical to rehabilitation.

Angela Smith is the President of the Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA), www.afpa.org.au.

 

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