Chute out: Taking a leap of faith for members' mental health
By Wayne Gatt
I won’t lie, I don’t like heights.
I get the wobbles up a ladder, I don’t do lookout towers and adventure sports like rock climbing ‘sound’ like good fun, but I have never really been able to pull them off.
So, given all of that, you might ask why I decided to jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet.
I asked myself that very same question on more than one occasion in the lead up to ‘Drop-a-Cop’, an initiative designed to raise awareness about mental health and to support positive action and help-seeking behaviour in policing.
The idea was to take a heap of cops and drop them out of a plane all on the same day, to kick-start a conversation about how and why it is okay to seek help with your mental health when you need it.
In a naive attempt to seek comfort and reassurance, I turned to YouTube to watch other people jumping from planes, only to discover that it made my palms sweatier, my love of solid ground stronger and my decision to agree to the event even more baffling.
Drop-a-Cop or as my colleagues jokingly renamed it, ‘Splat-a-Gatt’ was something that was heavy on my mind well before I arrived at the airport.
The event had two false starts early in the year. Poor weather conditions accounted for the first planned jump being postponed, while the second was cancelled due to a rolling storm front that arrived after another sleepless night. That was followed by a squeamish morning watching others getting ready and being briefed near the drop zone.
I don’t have to tell you what anxiety feels like. We have all felt it from time to time, often ahead of something we know will force us to confront fear, uncertainty, conflict or challenge our perception of what is achievable or what we are capable of.
Building up to the day on each occasion, I re-lived the same feelings.
Despite knowing I’d be okay, each time I fronted up, my mind raced with the what-if’s, which gave way to a lack of self-confidence.
Finally, on a bright morning in March, I was joined by a group of other police, police advocates and politicians. We finally made it to the tarmac and boarded a small plane to complete the jump.
I’m not normally lost for words, but I didn’t have much to say that morning.
Somewhat distracted, I found it hard to be myself. I am no stranger to flying in small aircraft, but I always make sure the door is closed, with me safely inside it.
Managing the natural anxiety this event triggered is something I’m sure is akin to the apprehension and fear too many of our colleagues face when they too are not feeling 100 per cent.
You gain some reassurance in talking though the jump with the crew who have been there and done it thousands of times before.
My only request to my instructor was ‘get me out that door quickly’. He said that wouldn’t be a problem and to just trust him.
Putting your trust entirely in someone else is not an easy thing to do for someone who is ordinarily very much in control.
Moving toward an open door, with a stranger you met only hours earlier and taking that leap of faith requires a vulnerability I can only imagine many members that have sought help have felt during times when they were not travelling ‘okay’.
For those of you who have not seen what came after I took that leap of faith, let me paint you a picture. I was less than elegant, I was uncomfortable and the feeling of exhilaration many told me to expect, was lost in the air that cannoned into my face unyieldingly as I plunged. I did what I was told, fell safely and with support to the ground, but from start to finish it was a challenging situation for me.
But here is the thing, life is full of challenges, and the way we feel in terms of our mental health is something we all need to work on constantly to stay well. If we all have challenging times, then we all need to plan to stay mentally healthy to manage them, especially in a career that throws more at you than the average job.
We need to plan to be mentally healthy.
And when we are not, or our plan isn’t working, we need to ask for support.
Asking for that help to get through a tough period takes courage and can feel a little unnatural for people like us, who are paid to be in control.
So, like I discovered jumping from a plane, seeking help and being able to trust others requires courage and the path is much more manageable when its not travelled alone. I could not fathom doing what I did on my own.
If you’re not your best at the moment, you shouldn’t either.
Mental Health Royal Commission calls for police to take a step back
This past month, the Royal Commission into Mental Health tabled its final report and among its hundreds of pages were a few recommendations that all police will understand well.
The Royal Commission did not mince its words or try to subtly disguise the current crisis that is confronting the Victorian Community in the way mental health support is (or is not) provided.
I sat in the Exhibition Building for a joint sitting of Parliament and heard the lived experience of people who had sought help but found it wanting, a situation we are confronted with every 12 minutes in policing.
Every 12 minutes, someone in crisis is helped by police. But the Commission found, and we agree, that police are not always the mode of help that a person in crisis needs most. The standout recommendation of the Royal Commission seeks to have the Ambulance service lead responses to mental health jobs, with police support when required. It’s flipping the equation as we know it.
The safety of our friends in Ambulance is something we will always need to support and therefore, police will always have a role to play. Still, any reduction in the number of welfare checks and lowrisk
situations we are called to attend, will be welcome news for stretched divvy van crews. It is also far less confronting for a person in crisis.
While it would be easy to take a cynical view that this shift will never work, we believe that the Commission’s less police-centric recommendations will have the biggest impact. Improving the system by increasing beds and increasing community support and assistance, is what is often missing before police are called to intervene. I can think of many recent high-profile situations this past year alone, involving police intervention or an incident where a person was unable to get support for themselves or after being transferred to hospital by police. This really is the crux of the issue.
We know the fix will cost a lot and take a long time before things improve, but it must start somewhere.
A working group of police and ambulance agencies and unions will be formed to work through the proposed changes. We will be there to give you a voice in the framing of this reform which is so needed and so overdue.
For support or assistance call TPAV 1800 361 008, or Police Wellbeing Services 9247 3344 or visit the ‘equipt’ app, or www.bluespacewellbeing.com.au or tips on how to plan to stay well.