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Kate Rasmussen used to be a police officer with the Queensland Police Service. She says she’s lost count of how many of her colleagues have contemplated suicide

Kate Rasmussen used to be a police officer with the Queensland Police Service. She says she’s lost count of how many of her colleagues have contemplated suicide

WARNING: Distressing content

Kate Rasmussen is one of the lucky ones, who got out of the police force before her mental health became deadly.

But she knows the dark side of the profession well, telling she has two friends who had to be resuscitated after attempting to take their own lives.

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Other officers have told Rasmussen they self-harm and she says she has “lost count” of how many officers have told her they contemplated suicide while sitting in their stations.

This month alone, an officer in South Australia was found dead inside a station and an off-duty officer in Victoria was found dead at a railway station. Both deaths are being treated as non-suspicious.

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Rasmussen retired medically from the Queensland Police Service (QPS) in 2014 after being diagnosed with PTSD following a critical incident.

“It was the way I was treated by senior management during my 10-month return to work program that broke me,” she said.

Rasmussen now works as a senior paralegal for Sibley Lawyers, where she helps assist other police officers.

“Sibley Lawyers assists many police who annually retain our firm to act for them in the event that they require legal advice and support for matters that arise during the course of their employment,” she said.

Rasmussen has been vocal about her experience in QPS and has been contacted by former officers as a result. She has also been contacted by the colleagues and family members of a couple of officers who have taken their own lives.

“Those colleagues and/or family members explained the history of bullying towards those officers prior to their passing,” she said.

It is the workplace culture within the police force that is the most detrimental to officers, Rasmussen said.

“There is a culture of covering up the wrongdoings of management, and targeting the low-hanging fruit,” she said.

“Complaints are made about serious matters but swept under the carpet, but I have seen complaints pursued relentlessly against lower ranked members for minor matters, or as an act of retribution or reprisal.”

While support services have increased, things are not getting better.

Rasmussen said self-referral options “don’t mean much” if officers still consider suicide.

Kate Rasmussen works as a senior paralegal after retiring medically from the Queensland Police Service in 2014. Credit: LinkedIn/Getty Images

The WA Police Union last year released a report on police officer suicides in Australia, in which it estimated that 103 serving police officers and 38 former police officers fell victim to suicide nationwide from 2000 to 2020.

Rates of suicide more than doubled during that period, from 5.9 suicides per 100,000 serving officers in 2000 to 12.5 suicides by 2020.

The majority of victims were male, and at least 15 of them murdered another person — generally their intimate partner and/or children — immediately before their own death.

“Over the last 20 years, the number of serving officer suicides has overtaken the number killed in the line of duty,” the report said.

“Some 55 serving police officers were killed in the line of duty from 2000 to 2020 compared to the 103 who fell victim to suicide.

“Suicides are not normally counted as a workplace fatality. This means a police force could claim to be meeting its WHS goal of ‘zero fatalities’ no matter how many of its officers fall victim to suicide that year.”

‘Kicked when they’re down’

Things may be different if the environment was supportive, but the trauma officers experience during critical incidents at work is exacerbated by poor working environments, Rasmussen said.

“A common statement I hear is that the impact of how people are treated by the organisation following these events is far worse than the impact of the event itself,” she said.

“You get angrier and angrier when you’re not supported.”

It comes to a point where a person is no longer thinking of the initial incident and what they went through, but the support they think they should have received afterwards, she said.

“It maintains their illness and their injury,” Rasmussen said.

“They feel really kicked while they’re down.

“It is also common that a work-related psychological injury then results in relationship breakdowns with colleagues and family members.

“Alcohol or prescription medication abuse is common in police with mental health diagnoses.

“It all contributes to the downward spiral of these officers, when work problems find their way into the home environment in that context.”

While attitudes about mental health may have improved, “the fact is the environment itself prevents people from getting better … it maintains the injury”, Rasmussen said.

She recalled a friend telling her that their experience in the workplace after a critical incident — where they were severely injured by a civilian — was far worse than the incident itself.

“You’re pretty equipped to handle what you see on the street,” she said.

“That’s not to say those incidents don’t cause injuries, however in a supportive environment, you’ll have a reasonable chance to get through that.”

Multiple contributing factors

“Controllable workplace factors are the key contributor for tipping an officer’s experience of trauma and danger into a psychological injury,” acting president of the Police Association of NSW (PANSW) Ian Allwood said.

“Those controllable workplace factors include high and increasing work demand, relentless, confronting, or dangerous tasks, workplace conflict and bullying and supportive leadership.

“High work demand, understaffing, lack of control over work patterns or flexible work arrangements and relentless, dangerous or confronting tasks are classic causes of psychological harm.

“These factors are prevalent in NSW police officers’ day to day work and are exacerbated by current understaffing and increased work demand.”

The Productivity Commission carried out a mental health inquiry in 2019, examining how mental health affects economic participation and productivity.

The Police Federation of Australia (PFA) made a submission to the inquiry, writing that research showed “a combination of not only police work, but also organisational and managerial cultures in which policing is carried out contributes to psychological injury”.

PFA’s submission highlighted an increased workload met with inadequate staffing levels and a lack of resources, fear of reporting mental health injuries to the system, unfair and bureaucratic management, an onerous inquiry system, and intense public criticism and expectations as issues impacting officers’ mental health and wellbeing.

“The issue of early intervention and de-stigmatising mental health amongst police is one of our biggest challenges,” PFA said.

Rasmussen said there were “so many factors that contribute to the stress police are under”.

“If you’re stressed, you’re less resilient to other things,” she said.

‘Not a supportive environment’

Officers are also scared to do their job because of the investigations they get subjected to, Rasmussen said.

Officers can be stood down from their job and isolated by an inability to discuss the incident with colleagues, she said.

This can lead to them feeling as though their colleagues are forming an opinion without them being able to defend themselves.

“It all comes back to support,” she said.

“(They’re) subjecting people to discipline investigations just for doing their jobs.

“(It’s) not a supportive environment or place to work for those officers.

“Officers who lodge workers’ compensation claims for psychological injuries are often up against the worker’s compensation legislation, which excludes a psychological injury that has arisen out of management action that has been reasonable or taken in a reasonable way.

“More often than not, with psychological injury claims that I have seen, the QPS will not support the claim if there is any suggestion that the injury arose from ‘management action’ of any form — even if it has been clearly unreasonable.

“QPS has been known to oppose claims at the initial procedural fairness stage, and then review and appeal the accepted claim all the way through the Workers’ Compensation Regulator, then the QIRC and the Industrial Court of Queensland, to prevent workers from receiving their statutory entitlements, when the injury has arisen out of the actions of senior staff.

“This can compound things further when officers run out of sick leave and are then without pay, and have to engage a lawyer to act for them, all the while knowing their employer has not supported them in this way.”

‘Misogyny, sexism and racism’

Women and people of colour also face added hostility within the police force, as evidenced in the 2022 Call for Change: Commission of Inquiry into Queensland Police Responses to Domestic and Family Violence.

The inquiry “found clear evidence of a culture where attitudes of misogyny, sexism and racism are allowed to be expressed, and at times acted upon, largely unchecked”.

Female officers reported being subjected to unwanted sexual comments, sexual advances and sexual harassment.

“A number of my friends in the QPS who are First Nations people have been subjected to racially inappropriate comments,” Rasmussen said.

“That one can no longer work because of how they have been treated is because of a failure of the QPS to sufficiently respond to complaints made by a number of officers.”

QPS’ First Nations advisory group last year condemned Queensland Police Union general president and CEO Ian Leavers for comments he made about the state’s Path to Treaty legislation.

Leavers said the recommendations by the Yoorrook Justice Commission to reduce imprisonment of children under the age of 16 would give a “free pass to every rapist, domestic violence abuser, habitual home invader and car thief who tells police they identify as Aboriginal”.

The advisory group’s letter called on QPS leaders to take action “that rejects racism in all its forms”.

High rate of suicidal thoughts

While there are statistics available about police officer suicides, there is limited information available about police officers experiencing suicidal thoughts or making suicide plans.

Rasmussen recalled being told by a former officer that they had considered suiciding in the station, “to make a statement about how far they had been pushed”.

Beyond Blue’s Answering the Call national survey in 2018 found that emergency services staff reported “having suicidal thoughts over two times higher than adults in the general population and are three times more likely to have a suicide plan”.

A 2017 survey by Rasmussen found that of 678 current and former QPS officers, 37 respondents said they had attempted suicide, and the leading cause was a lack of support from QPS management in 25 of those cases.

“221 respondents had considered suicide, and again, the leading cause was lack of support from QPS management in 139 of those cases,” Rasmussen said.

“In my case, the way I was treated by the organisation after a critical incident was far more detrimental to me than the incident itself.

“When you’ve got people thinking about it, that’s bad enough.

“It only takes one little thing.”

Rasmussen compared it to a bucket being filled up over time, saying: “One drop makes you flow over.”

“It might not be the most serious of things … (it’s a) build-up of things.”

An issue nationwide

These issues are not contained to Queensland, with a 2016 review into the mental health and wellbeing of Victoria Police employees finding there was a “lack of clarity around particular issues, including suicide risk”.

The review recommended a prevalence study be undertaken to gain accurate data on the organisational mental health and suicide risk profile.

“Whilst operational incident exposure is an important contributing factor to mental health risk, and can be cumulative, all evidence suggests that organisational factors (particularly leadership style, management practices, workload and resourcing issues) are also very important,” the report found.

“The impact of operational incident exposure is significantly mediated by these organisational factors.”

The report also found “there is a reluctance to seek help due to a fear of detrimental impact on career prospects”.

The NSW Police Force also faces these issues and has committed to and will implement the PULSE program, which will see mental health clinicians embedded in police workplaces.

“Further steps that need to be taken urgently are addressing those risk factors (including high and increasing work demand, relentless confronting or dangerous tasks, workplace conflict and bullying and supportive leadership),” Allwood said.

“This is necessary to control risks and to prevent harm rather than treating injuries.”

“For those officers that are injured, they should be supported by the best injury management practises and a prioritisation of return to work.”

Changes required

But Rasmussen believes wide-spread and extensive change is required.

She believes officers should not be stripped of their status when they transition into a non-operational role with QPS due to medical issues.

There is an attitude that officers should be operational, or front line, or “you’re out the door”, Rasmussen said.

“You work hard to become an officer or attain a certain rank,” she said.

“When you get stripped of all that, it can have a detrimental effect.

“They could be a bit more flexible (and) allow people to keep their uniform.”

Rasmussen emphasised that officers spend a significant portion of their time doing admin work in the station, and this could be handed over to officers in non-operational roles.

For real change to occur, “officers need to feel supported and safe overall in their workplace”, Rasmussen said.

“The frustration of having nobody listen or take their complaints seriously is detrimental and makes it difficult to heal.

“Police just want to be treated fairly, ethically, and lawfully when doing a job that is tough enough.”

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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