The Horror Stories From Australia's Front Lines

Emergency workers share their horror stories from the front line as Australia releases first report into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What you need to know
  • Former police officer told ten daily post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is "rampant"
  • As many as 20 percent of emergency workers are impacted by PTSD
  • Intensive care paramedic estimated at least half of her colleagues have PTSD symptoms
  • A landmark report released aims to better support the mental health of first-responders

For former police officer Belinda Niel, every day at work was a “bad day”.

“People didn’t come to me when it was a good day, it was always a bad day and bad news. Dealing with murder, trauma and hostages was a normal day for me,” she said.

There are a handful of particularly gruesome scenarios she has never been able to forget.

“As a hostage negotiator I had a situation one time where the hostage was being stabbed in front of me as I was trying to negotiate their release. It was truly horrendous,” she said.

Neil worked as police detective, homicide investigator and hostage negotiator until 2005 and is now a strong advocate of raising awareness about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“It’s a rampant problem, statistics indicate that as many as 20 percent, or one in five first responders will be impacted by PTSD,” she told ten daily.

She was one of them.

Former NSW Police Homicide Detective Belinda Neil on graduation day at the NSW Police Fore Academy. Image: supplied

After having children, Neil’s life began to unravel. She had difficulty sleeping, was constantly on edge with fears her children were going to killed. She became irrational and was unable to concentrate and do her job. As a result, her marriage broke down and she couldn’t get out of bed to go to work. She was diagnosed with PTSD and left the NSW police force.

“At the time, nobody had any training around mental health, nobody knew how to support me at work. There was no training in terms of identifying PTSD or even just stress.

“If you were senior you needed to be seen as ‘tough’. The good thing is, I am beginning to see this change.”

In an Australian-first, a report examining post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the country’s emergency services was released on Thursday.

The report is the outcome of a roundtable discussion at Australian Federal Police headquarters last year, exploring better ways to improve mental health for first responders like paramedics and police officers.

Queensland government poster to  stop attacks on paramedics and frontline health workers.

Think tank Australia21 and support service FearLess Outreach lead the initiative in conjunction with 20 organisations including state police departments, ambulance services and fire and rescue bodies.

When Helping Hurts: PTSD in First Responders, makes 31 recommendations to better manage the mental health  of police, ambulance, fire services and defence force.

These include reviewing how recruits are screened so they are aware of the mental health risks of the job and normalising attitudes to post-traumatic stress so it's "not in any sense, a marker of a [being] genetically inferior being but a response to life challenges".

Ambulance Tasmania intensive care paramedic Ruby* estimates that more than half of her colleagues show signs of PTSD.

“There are some who are diagnosed but many others who show signs and symptoms but continue working undiagnosed,” she said.

She said the stigma around mental illness remains, although it is getting better.

“It’s a slow cultural shift, when I first started in 2011 and was an intern, it was a bit of a boys club. I didn’t feel comfortable walking into the tea room and saying ‘I just experienced something really bad’, there would be eye rolls and advice like ‘toughen up’,” she told ten daily.

People run with there hands up from the Lindt Cafe, Martin Place during a hostage standoff on December 16, 2014 in Sydney. IMAGE: Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

The report highlights the importance of workers with PTSD being able to return to jobs that are not on the front line, without a drop in their salary

On Tuesday, the head of the NSW Ambulance Service admitted the organisation had "completely failed" paramedics suffering trauma and mental health problems.

In a video sent to paramedics , chief executive Dominic Morgan delivered an apology on on behalf of NSW Ambulance (NSWA) acknowledging widespread bullying and  that the service neglected mental health problems.

Head of NSW Ambulance Makes A Public Apology
"NSW Ambulance has not always looked after all its staff as well as it should have," he said.

“For some, it will not be possible to fully recover until they are acknowledged and believed for the pain they experienced. For their pain I am sorry."

*Not her real name