Dire impact on first responders revealed

Volunteer firefighters are grappling with their mental health more than three years after the Black Summer bushfires. Picture: NSW Rural Fire Service
Volunteer firefighters are grappling with their mental health more than three years after the Black Summer bushfires. Picture: NSW Rural Fire Service

Alarming research has revealed volunteering or working as a first responder doubles a person’s likelihood of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Assistant Minister of Mental Health Emma McBride told NewsCorp that emergency services personnel are diagnosed with PTSD at double the rate of the general public.

“The mental health impacts of natural disasters and emergencies can persist long after the disaster has passed,” she said.

Figures from the government reveal a staggering 39 per cent of emergency responders are diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetime.

Albo Central Coast
Minister for Mental Health Emma McBride revealed the worrying statistics. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Flavio Brancaleone

The revelations come as a new study conducted by the Edith Cowan University lifted the veil on the ongoing mental health impact of the Black Summer bushfires on volunteer firefighters.

Nearly half of the volunteers reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress one year after their service over the 2019-2020 summer.

More than 11 per cent of the volunteers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a staggering 5.5 per cent reported they had made plans to end their own lives

Associate professor Erin Smith said the results were alarming and demonstrated the lack of support available to emergency service volunteers.

“A critical part of preparing for future fire seasons is ensuring the wellbeing of volunteer personnel who are called upon to respond to fires and protect our communities,” she said.

Every volunteer reported the bushfires had impacted their wellbeing, but less than half sought mental health support during the 12 months after the bushfires.

The majority of volunteers claimed their organisations provided inadequate support after Black Summer, while others reported feeling that seeking support would negatively impact their careers.

A study had found volunteer firefighters are still wrestling with the mental health impacts of the Black Summer bushfires. Picture: NSW Rural Fire Service
A study had found volunteer firefighters are still wrestling with the mental health impacts of the Black Summer bushfires. Picture: NSW Rural Fire Service

Dr Smith slammed the findings as a consequence of the “ongoing toxic masculine culture associated with emergency service organisations”.

“This culture continues to promote the belief that speaking out about mental health is weak, and that there is a need for firefighters to be impervious to the impact of trauma exposure,” she said.

The study recommended cultivating an environment where emergency services personnel no longer fear the negative consequences of seeking mental health assistance.

“Organisational leaders need to be provided with opportunities to learn more about mental health and how they can best have those types of conversations,” Dr Smith said.

As well as counselling with people who had experienced similar traumatic events, volunteers suggested support was needed from psychologists, counsellors, chaplains, and animal-assisted therapy.

Disappointingly, Dr Smith said the research demonstrated the lack of progress in supporting the wellbeing of first responders after a traumatic event.

“Experience from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria told us the mental health impact on those who respond to major bushfire events will likely be complex and protracted,” she said.

“Firefighters and other support personnel were at increased risk of developing PTSD, depression, anxiety and complicated grief compared to the general public.”

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The majority of respondents said they did not feel they had received adequate support after the fires. Picture: Sam Mooy / Getty Images

The lead researcher said previous studies showed inadequate treatment of mental health issues led to increased risk of suicide in first responders.

“So why, some ten years later during another major bushfire event, are we dealing with the same problems?” she asked.

A new $4m initiative launched by the federal government in March hopes to offer some reprieve.

The National Emergency Workers Support Service will be operated by the Black Dog Institute, a national mental health organisation.

Emergency services workers and volunteers will be able to access 12 free sessions with a clinical psychologist either in person or via telehealth.

NEWSS will also provide an online mental health assessment and triage service.

“This integrated and tailored approach will make it easier for these essential workers and volunteers to access support and resources,” Ms McBride said.

“Users with more severe mental health symptoms will be linked directly to either the Black Dog Institute’s Depression Clinic or the University of New South Wales’ Traumatic Stress Clinic.”

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The trauma for volunteers includes the loss of colleagues, such as firefighting volunteers Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer, who were killed on duty. Picture: Jenny Evans / Getty Images

The minister for mental health said this year’s budget provided $7.2m over two years to fund NEWSS and a volunteer network of psychologists with specialist training in supporting first responders.

“This is part of a broader long-term, considered government response to support the mental health and wellbeing of Australians after disasters,” Ms McBride said.

The Edith Cowan University study comes more than three years after the Black Summer megafire swept across the country in 2019 and 2020 and eviscerated more than ten million hectares of land.

Australian researchers estimated that more than a billion animals were killed during the wildfires.

Federal Minister for Emergency Services, Murray Watt, has been approached for comment.