WA News News & Reports PTSD and Police
PTSD and Police
Written by Jan Hallam
Tuesday, 01 August 2017

 

The police union last month spoke to Medical Forum and listed its concerns for its members. WA Police was asked to respond but its response came after our deadline. Here are the edited responses to our questions around PTSD in the service.

What mental health training and support are given to police? Recruit training/ongoing education/screening after traumatic events. Is it culturally entrenched in the service that trauma is part of the job and has to be managed?

In WA Police it is acknowledged that police officers are exposed to events that have the potential to be traumatic on a more frequent basis than the general public. What events impact people is a very individual experience.

The Health and Safety Division is active in training and education initiatives and works closely with the Police Academy to ensure programs are contemporary and relevant. The Psychology Unit is currently partnered with UWA to develop a comprehensive and evidence-based resilience program for trial with recruits. If successful, this program will eventually be adapted for current personnel.

The Police Academy has specific internal trainers who deliver Mental Health First Aid training. To date, the agency has trained more than 10% of the agency (as at April 2017, 1223 personnel) in this program (which was Recommendation 19 in The Toll of Trauma on Western Australian Emergency Staff and Volunteers report (2012)).

Last month (July), we began a review of the Welfare Services for Officers and their families. This will focus on identifying needs at different ranks in order to create mentally well workplaces, critical incident response processes, knowledge of existing services, use of resources and opportunities for capability building.

At the induction ceremony for new recruits, Health and Safety Division present for 40 minutes to the families discussing the challenges of policing and their role in supporting their loved one. Information on the challenges of policing and what changes in behaviour to be aware of is provided to them in a booklet. Additional information on support services both internal and external (ie: Lifeline) is also be provided. This program began early 2016 and has received positive feedback from the families that have attended.

What support is offered to staff?

Current staff can access a number of internal support processes including Peer Support Officers (PSOs, 130 currently active), Welfare Officers, Chaplains and internal Psychologists along with specialist medical assistance where required. Members and their families can also access support from the Employee Assistance Provider (EAP).

As per the Industrial Agreement, medical expenses for police officers are paid for both work and non-work related illness or injury. Police officers who do not wish to use the internal psychological resources, the EAP or the Chaplains can seek assistance from professionals external to the agency (of their choosing) and will either have these expense paid directly by the agency (work related) or reimbursed (non-work related). There are also free community mental health resources that can be accessed through their GP. There is no financial barrier for police officers seeking assistance.

In relation to PTSD Health and Safety Division also utilises external programs and practitioners who are specialists in this field.

WA Police is also reviewing software to better capture and record exposure to potentially traumatic events. (Recommendation 4, Toll of Trauma Report)

Is there a reluctance for police officers to put their hand up to say they are struggling? Are there management strategies to get around that reluctance?

Why people struggle to seek appropriate help is a complex issue and not confined to emergency services personnel. The main cause put forward is normally stigma. Stigma in relation to psychological wellbeing has changed in the past five years but it still remains in the general community. It is not something that any one workplace can tackle on its own.

Awareness raising and education programs show promise in helping to recognise early warning signs and seek assistance earlier. Mental Health First Aid is well recognised and received throughout the agency. This has a very strong message regarding help seeking.

WA Police has specific programs for management to help them identify early changes in behaviour and encourage people to seek appropriate help. These are based on the principles of Psychological First Aid.

One of the issues raised by the union was a mechanism whereby medically retired officers were processed differently from those who have been accused of misconduct or corruption. Is that on the cards?

WA Police has reviewed the process of medical retirement for police officers. Medical retirement is covered by the same section of the legislation as loss of confidence. Changing this requires legislative change and is an ongoing piece of work.

Our overall message to police officers regarding PTSD and any psychological challenge is that it is not always career ending. We try to focus on building capacity and having people at work.

We acknowledge that for some people returning to the police environment is not in their or the communities best interest and we are working at ways to assist people when they have to leave the agency so that there is a transition process to help them get beyond that strong police identity.

We can only do this with the help of their medical practitioners. There should be a holistic approach to their care where we focus on what they can do (focus on their fitness to work rather than their illness and keeping them off work) and how do we all support them if being a police officer is no longer best for their ongoing wellbeing.

 

While communication is one thing, investigation of notifications is another. We believe good doctors want the bad ones weeded out but they don’t want to be part of a witch hunt or get buried in lawyers, politics or paperwork.

The national Medical Board can respond to a complaint or act on the advice of the WA Medical Board to establish an assessment panel to either examine the health or performance and professional standards of a doctor. Health consumers are represented on panels along with medical practitioners.

The Medical Board and AHPRA have undisclosed lists of doctors who are approved by them as panellists and probably as expert witnesses. Many of these people, we believe, were ‘grandfathered’ across when National Law first came in (2010). Their impartiality is as unknown as they are. Then we have expected biases of the legal assessors, chosen by AHPRA, possibly thrown into the mix.

Is there a problem, Houston?

It is important this is sorted to everyone’s satisfaction as 42% of doctors in our survey thought panellists could lack impartiality to a serious extent.

In fact, only one quarter of doctors we surveyed (n=195) were happy with the impartiality shown by AHPRA or the Medical Board in processing a complaint (with 36% unhappy and 39% undecided). Nearly all of those who were unhappy said they were concerned that unfairness will be seriously damaging to someone. Investigation is a very confronting experience.

If someone is being investigated by a panel, either the panel or the person being investigated can opt for a more out-in-the-open State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) judicial hearing – the panel usually refers because it feels the evidence before it constitutes more serious professional misconduct.

What Fair Doctors Want

Talking to doctors, they appear to want an apolitical system of investigation that is fair and timely. They want to be treated reasonably. Unlike the legal profession, their work is mostly built around trust and honesty. They do not want a return to the ‘good old days’ where those with a political bent in the medical profession could influence what the Medical Board did.

While this is a very difficult area for us to investigate, with arguments and counter-arguments at every step, we cannot understand why the Medical Board would turn to arguably the most political organisation, the AMA, for its counsel (the national Board Chair met earlier this year with “senior leaders from AHPRA and representatives of the AMA” to workshop doctor complaints).

Why? Our e-Poll responses raise a question mark over the AMA’s involvement (and we don’t think AMA members have been polled on this issue.)

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