Ground-breaking scheme to fund mental health treatment for police, paramedics

Published by The Age on 12 June 2019

In his job, Sergeant Mark Thomas was used to making hard decisions quickly. But curled up in hospital and faced with choosing a meal, he had to get a nurse to decide for him.

“That decision was too big,” Sergeant Thomas said.

The police officer of 23 years had suffered what the doctors called a catastrophic loss of self. It took a decade for Sergeant Thomas to get to that point since attending a suicide in 2003.

Emergency service workers such as Sergeant Thomas, as well as nurses and child protection staff, are more likely to receive help sooner in a new scheme touted as a ground-breaking Australian first.

From Monday, the Victorian government will fund sworn and unsworn police employees and paramedics for immediate medical treatment for mental health injuries while WorkCover are assessing their claims.

The same will apply for firefighters, State Emergency Service workers, Triple 0 call-takers, corrections staff, child protection officials and public sector nurses and midwives from July 1.

The funding will cover 13 weeks' worth of treatment, but participants can apply for another 13 weeks of help. If their WorkCover claims are rejected, the government still funds the 13 weeks out of a $2.5 million pool of cash; if their claims are accepted, it will reimburse the cost into the fund.

This process aims to reverse the onus on emergency service workers to prove to the insurer that their jobs made them ill.

Though it is a pilot program, Police Minister Lisa Neville said it will be enshrined in legislation in a year.

“We are going to treat mental health issues as if they are like a physical injury,” Ms Neville said.

“If you break a leg under the WorkCover scheme, no one says you’ve got to wait until your claim is assessed, you go and get your leg fixed immediately. In mental health, people are often waiting weeks and weeks to get access to services under the WorkCover scheme.”

Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said the current scheme caused more harm than good.

"It’s important when people speak up, when they’re dealing with a mental health injury, they are able to start to heal from that moment onwards," he said.

Previous figures from the force’s insurer suggested in one month alone, almost half of psychological claims were rejected, while 95 per cent of physical injury claims were accepted.

So far this year, there have been 243 mental health injury claims from police. Last year in total, there were 261, an increase from 135 in 2015.

Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said police fear that they will not be believed if they decide to seek help.

“This pilot changes that. That is the single benefit,” Mr Gatt said.

“It provides treatment that is not delayed and we know that when treatment is delayed, it delays recovery and it delays their ability to get back into work.”

Sergeant Thomas had seen plenty of death before the suicide he attended in 2003, but that incident stayed with him.

“I can describe everything about that day including the rusty lock on the door,” he said.

The symptoms – poor sleeping patterns, anger, concentration, speech – gradually escalated to the point of break down.

It took two and a half years for the 47-year-old to return to the force and now he works in one of its intelligence divisions.

"I had no education about mental health. I knew I was impacted so that’s the story I push out now, if you feel something is not right, make sure you seek treatment."

For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.

Members can also contact TPAV's Wellbeing Officers 24/7 on 03 9468 2600.