Melbourne’s anti-lockdown protest in the CBD on August 21, described as the most violent in 20 years, injured up to 21 members of Victoria Police, and landed at least nine officers in hospital. There have been more protests since.
On that particular afternoon, some protesters arrived at the rally seeing police officers as little more than punching bags, to vent their frustrations. Some officers have been struggling with mental health ever since.
In a statement, police said the majority of demonstrators present that day ‘came with violence in mind’.
While officers, who are well trained and equipped for this type of behaviour, may not suffer mental health consequences as a result of a one-off incident like this, the snowballing effect of a number of incidents over their careers, along with the stresses of their everyday work and personal lives can result in serious mental health impacts on members of Victoria Police during their careers and well beyond.
Long before the pandemic and its accompanying new dangers, a Victoria Police Mental Health Review found that: “Police officers experience higher levels of recurrent exposure to potentially traumatic events compared with any other industry.” The 2016 report stated: “they are frequently exposed to potentially traumatic events that may result in varying degrees of psychological distress responses” and that “the cumulative impact of operational experiences over time increases the risk of psychological injury, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
“We do know that there is an increased risk if someone is directly attacked,” says Nicole Sadler, head of policy and practice at Phoenix Australia, a leading organisation in the prevention and recovery from mental health challenges as a result of trauma. Incidents such as violence against police at protests ‘could be potentially traumatic’ particularly if the officers felt threatened or were harmed.
More than 30% of police officers have experienced a diagnosed mental health condition at some point in their career or lifetime, says Larissa Taylor, deputy CEO of policy, advocacy and communications for Mental Health Victoria. “And that’s a significant number”.
Australia has a proud history of legitimate protest, but that day “it was a mob protesting all different things and a whole lot of them intent on having a fight, regardless of what brought them together”, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said.
“A few that wanted to punch on, plain and simple.”
In his efforts to keep Victorians safe from Covid-19 and deter breaches to lockdown laws, Andrews’ warnings to rule-breakers about penalties from police, may inadvertently be placing officers in the firing line.
The context in which the media reports these issues may also “cause an increase in harm” says Dr Ross Hendy, lecturer in criminology at Monash University and former New Zealand police officer.
Armed and angry, most of the estimated 4000-strong crowd of protesters punched, kicked, and hurled objects at officers, leaving them with concussions, broken noses and a range of other injuries.
“I think it comes down to the way protesters have dehumanised police… see them as symbols of the state” says Hendy.
He says protesters who escalate rallies into violence see police officers as ‘expendable’.
“It’s just one more blue uniform.”
In the aftermath, several officers who were present at the rally had their private lives invaded by demonstrators who obtained their names and other personal information about them.
Over the following weeks, eight protesters were arrested for harassing and threatening the officers online. The Age, upon seeing the messages, reported: “Some messages allegedly went as far as to include threats of retribution against specific police and their families.”
“That’s sort of entering their homes” says Sadler.
She says any type of threat to safety and security, particularly if it’s beyond the workplace and extends into personal lives and families can be very difficult and “we do know that this has an impact upon mental health and wellbeing”.
Further endangering the health of police, many of the rally’s participants flagrantly flouted Victoria’s mask rules, not only exposing officers to the risk of contracting Covid-19 but the added fear of catching the disease, posing an additional threat to their mental health.
“Quite clearly, there is added risk to our members by attending these protests, due to the refusal of protesters to follow health guidelines and take the simple steps to protect themselves and others from contracting the disease,” says a spokesperson for the Victoria Police Association. “They don’t care about themselves, and they certainly don’t care about our members.”
Having spoken to many frontline workers, Sadler says one of the frustrations can be the threats to them if they’re being exposed to people with Covid-19, not just what it means in terms of their own exposure but the fear about taking it home to their families and loved ones.
“So, it’s all those different layers of threat that people might feel,” she says. “It’s not just a physical threat for them at the time.”
The consequences of these layers of stress through their careers can have far-reaching impacts on the mental health of officers involved, and multiple tiers of support are needed.
A recent study funded by the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund supported the inclusion of resilience training for new recruits in order to reduce adverse responses to trauma and decrease the use of substance or alcohol as a reaction to trauma.
“It’s not just thinking about the short-term impacts” says Sadler, but “where they’re really starting to significantly impact your ability to do your job or meet your obligations at home or in your personal life – sometimes don’t happen for months, or even years following exposures to these types of things.”
While officers experiencing mental health issues are supported by the Police Association with services including BlueSpace and BlueHub as well as the Employee Assistance Program, prevention is still key.
Recommendation 10 in the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System assures police officers better support when attending mental health crises in the community and more support for them as employees and workers, with the Victorian government agreeing to implement all sixty five recommendations over the next ten years.
The Royal Commission was established in response to increasing concerns about the mental health of Victorians, and the pandemic has seen this grow to staggering proportions, often triggered by
frustration over restrictions and lockdowns leaving some sections of the community at breaking point, frustrations that can spearhead extreme measures and violent responses.
Investing in the mental health needs of the community will see a reduction in these types of incidents, helping “to take the burden off our frontline emergency workers,” says Taylor, “by better supporting people’s mental health needs.”
Waiting lists in the community for health professionals can be up to six months long.
“That’s certainly not going to help our police,” says Taylor.
“What can we do immediately?” she says. “We’ll be calling on the state government, in their next budget, to address the immediate mental health needs of the community and find ways of doing that in the short term. And by doing that… we will certainly see flow-on effects to police.”
Many of the officers will still be recovering from the injuries sustained last month, and in the future, inevitably, more will be attacked in the line of duty due to the nature of their work, but “when you ask them about those parts of the job” says Sadler. “They say, you know what, I expected that bit of the job – I was trained for it. I knew what to expect. I knew that there’d be challenging days.”
But speaking as a former police officer, Hendy says it’s not particularly nice “as a police officer to be thinking about what you’re doing as not seen as legitimate, or you’re not being respected for the sacrifices that you’re making. That can affect your worldview… your understanding of it – how well respected you are in the community.”