Boost to mental health support for SA emergency services

Friday, 28 July, 2023

Boost to mental health support for SA emergency services

The South Australian Government has announced plans to invest $1.9 million over four years to the state’s emergency services. The investment will see more staff recruited to support mental health, existing programs strengthened and new initiatives delivered to better support emergency services volunteers, staff and their families.

The emergency services sector (ESS) has a workforce of over 16,750 personnel (about 15,170 volunteers and 1580 staff) across SAFECOM, SA Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS), SA Country Fire Service (CFS), SA State Emergency Service (SES) and the Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR). The funding will enable proactive engagement and the development of targeted services for ESS personnel and their families.

The nature of first responder work involves repeated exposure to trauma and stress. First responders are reportedly two times more likely to have suicidal ideation, are at a higher risk of developing complex mental health conditions and are exposed to challenging and stressful environments, such as natural disasters, rescue operations and road crashes. In the last 12 months, the call rate to the Stress Prevention and Management (SPAM) Helpline increased by 129%. The SPAM Helpline is an employee assistance program that provides a confidential access point for volunteers, employees and their families for counselling and referrals to mental health professionals.

The funding will help extend support to children, youth and family of CFS and SES volunteers and staff; a new role will also be established within the child, family and youth mental health program, to include work with brigades and units to promote the leadership skills of cadets and young workers. A Volunteer Peer Support Coordinator will revitalise the existing peer support officer program. The program will focus on developing mentorship opportunities for officers, targeted skills and training development, and increasing recruitment of volunteer peer support officers across the regions.

A leaders’ training program will also be developed and implemented, to enhance their capability to manage mental health issues and increase their mental health literacy. The investment will also fund research towards contemporary health and wellbeing programs, including a suicide prevention program and mental health first aid training. An online mental health and wellbeing course will also be implemented, to be accessible to all volunteers and staff. The funding will also improve the accessibility and capacity of existing programs such as SPAM and the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). A key aim is to reduce the stigma around mental health, especially self-stigma that is a barrier to seeking help at the earliest opportunity.

The new model of operation will allow continuity and expansion of existing and well-respected program areas, and enable the proactive offering of support to volunteers, staff and families after traumatic events rather than waiting for a request to be made.

Joe Szakacs, Minister for Police, Emergency Services and Correctional Services, said it is crucial that the state government does all it can to support hardworking personnel and their families with accessible support measures when they are required. “Our emergency services personnel are faced with distressing and stressful incidents daily. There is no shame in speaking up if you need help and strengthening this already successful SAFECOM-led program will ensure services are accessible and new roles are created to adapt to new challenges,” Szakacs said.

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