Helping the heroes
The COVID-19 pandemic and Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires have taken a heavy toll on those working on the frontline.
While the physical impact continues to be reckoned, what remains largely unknown is the fallout from the prolonged psychological trauma on our first responders.
Edith Cowan University disaster response expert Associate Professor Erin Smith has spent decades studying the long-term impact facing paramedics, firefighters, police and other emergency first responders.
Her research has uncovered the startling reality of the lasting emotional trauma affecting first responders in the weeks, months and years after a disaster.
"Our emergency services play an integral role on the frontline of catastrophic events," Professor Smith said.
"The mental health burden of witnessing devastation, particularly over a long period of time, can be traumatising and exhausting."
A ticking timebomb
Australian emergency services personnel are in a “state of crisis” as suicide rates have increased by around 450 per cent to 800 per cent annually over the past few years.
"We need an approach that removes the onus on the individual. We need to find appropriate ways to ‘reach in’ to identify those who may be silently struggling."
Around every six weeks a firefighter, paramedic or police officer dies by suicide in Australia.
Professor Smith said first responders pay a heavy price for their selfless service.
Her research has revealed that during a typical period almost 30 per cent of paramedics report high levels of psychological distress.
"Emergency service workers suffer from higher rates of mental health illness and stress than the general population," Professor Smith said.
"Imagine the cumulative stress of responding to prolonged disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic or months of catastrophic bushfires – it’s creating a ticking timebomb for our first responders’ mental health."
Large-scale disasters can have far-reaching and long-term impacts.
Professor Smith’s 20-year study involving first responders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States uncovered the challenges facing survivors long after the incident.
Her research found that almost twenty years later the prevalence of mental health disorders and need for treatment remains elevated among first responders, with almost half still needing mental health support.