Trigger warning: This article contains references to infant death.
From devastating bushfires to an unprecedented pandemic, our first responders have seen it all — and safeguarded us throughout. This work, unsurprisingly, is not without difficulties, depression, anxiety, or stress. Or without trauma.
Research shows one in three emergency service workers experience high to very high psychological distress. 40% of workers and 33% of volunteers are diagnosed with a mental health condition in their life — staggering in comparison to the one in five for the general population. The prevalence of PTSD among emergency service workers or first responders is at 10%.
Paramedic and veteran, James Millis, knows of this trauma. He says, “Any death of a child is incredibly difficult to process and literally impossible to forget,” specifically citing a particular case of a three-year-old toddler being beaten to death that has stayed with him, and “is the source of much angst.”
Millis is part of that 10%, and believes that “first responders see the events of trauma the human mind can have trouble processing”. In his experience, this is only further “compounded by the need for first responders to finish one task, and quickly respond to the next task the community requires” without adequate time to debrief and process traumatic events.
Challenges he faces in his day-to-day work include: “Long hours, exposure to trauma, violence, climatic or environmental challenges, danger in the form of a constantly changing and, at times, adverse workplaces.” In addition to this, there are also physical and mental injuries.
Although the work of first responders is “vital for the community to flow and function,” according to Millis, there have been very few resources or support services to keep their mental and physical fitness in balance.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has launched a new mental health initiative, designed to help first responders and their families. The programme, Peak Fortem, aims to equip first responders and their families with proactive tools to build their mental fitness and enable them to better work through the varying stressors and trauma. It’s established by Fortem, an Australian not-for-profit dedicated to supporting the mental wellbeing of first responders and their families.
The initiative even has the royal stamp of approval. Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex, spoke about how mental fitness is one and the same as physical fitness. “Serving in the military, I saw first-hand how critical it is to train your mind as a muscle — not only to endure challenges and stresses, but to excel, grow, and build resilience in all aspects of life.”
Praising the charity, he said “Peak Fortem is the product of teamwork, dedication, and a commitment to supporting and strengthening communities of all kind — values upheld by Australia’s first responders. With Peak Fortem, we are witnessing the next step in a global movement towards mental fitness.”
“Vital,” is the word Millis uses to describe the initiative. “This is a service that supports those who are constantly giving, to be able to prioritise their own mental fitness with positive and constructive strategies.” He hopes that it will result in “making the first responder a better responder, and a more active and available family member”.
One thing he wants the general public to know about his work? “Although we are public servants, we shouldn’t be treated, or thought of, as servants. Continually being spoken to rudely or disrespectfully and at times physically assaulted is not acceptable and not what a first responder signs up for.
“We are human beings, trying our best.”