Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention - press conference - 21 June 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister McBride's press conference on the National Disaster Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework.

The Hon Emma McBride MP
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Assistant Minister Rural and Regional Health

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KRISTY MCBAIN, MINISTER: It's great to be here with the Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and the Assistant Minister for Rural and Regional Health, Emma McBride and the SES Deputy Unit Commander. What we're here to do today is launch the Mental Health Framework. Across Eden-Monaro, we've had 36 declared natural disasters since 2016, and our first responders are fabulous members of our community, volunteering in a range of capacities to make sure our communities are resilient during times of natural disaster. But it does take a toll on them and on our community, and I want to acknowledge and thank the volunteers here today, not only for the work they do in assisting our communities in natural disasters, but also the work they do in being visible in our communities. Only a couple of weeks ago, members of the SES joined us in the reconciliation walk across Queanbeyan, they're there for events like Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, and they are vital parts of our community. A National Framework is something that we are putting in place to make sure that during any disaster, or following any disaster, that we are assisting our first responders with the supports they need with a standardised service that can be rolled out across the country. We want to make sure that we keep our volunteers and our first responders safe, we want to make sure that we're supporting them, and we want to make sure that we can help them continue the great work they do in our community. And I'll ask Emma to talk about the Framework.

EMMA MCBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thank you Minister McBain. I'm so pleased to be here in Queanbeyan this morning with your volunteers from the SES. We know that right around Australia, disasters are happening more frequently and the impact has been more severe. In Australia in the last 12 months, 351 Local Government communities have been impacted by severe flooding. I've had the privilege of visiting communities who have been devastated by natural disasters including Lismore in the mid north coast of New South Wales, and I want to thank all of those volunteers and first responders who put themselves in harms way to keep other people safe, but as Minister McBain has said, that takes a toll on first responders. We know that the rates of PTSD experienced by first responders are 39%, more than twice the prevalence than in the broader population, and with this National Framework, what it will mean is that consistently and reliably first responders, whether they volunteer or paid, active or retired, will be able to access the right mental health support and care that they deserve, and that we know, will keep them well and keep them active in supporting our communities. So part of this National Framework is about that coordination, so that consistently the right sort of support and care will be available. Also in the Budget, we've announced $7 million for the mental health and well being of first responders. Part of that is with the Australian Psychological Society and their volunteer psychologists who are out there proactively listening to first responders, to make sure if there's any signals of distress, so that they can get the right sort of support and care that they need. Another part of that is with the Black Dog Institute, and their National Emergency Worker Support Service, and what we've seen with that is that someone can seek confidential support, when and where they need it, and be able to speak to someone who's trained specifically for first responders. And what's been really encouraging about this is we're seeing first responders recover from PTSD. In the past it was something that people thought they had to live with and try to cope with, but we now know with the right early intervention and support that they'll be able to recover, to continue well in the work that they're doing in supporting our community. So I might hand over now to one of those first responders, to Robert, to speak more.

ROBERT CUNNEEN, SES DEPUTY UNIT COMMANDER: Thank you Ministers. From an emergency services and first responder perspective, looking after the well being and mental health of our members and volunteers is critical. Keeping them in good order so that they can continue to support the community throughout these events is absolutely critical and we appreciate and welcome any service that adds to that delivery of mental well being. So yes, as a commander we do experience unique situations that normal life just doesn't prepare you for, whether it be road crashes, houses burning down, the emotional trauma can be quite cumulative over time, and left unrecognised can be quite devastating. So we are very grateful for this Framework as another layer of support to the community of emergency personnel and first responders. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: It strikes me that 39% of your staff with post traumatic stress disorder that's just simply a force preservation issue right? Like if you lose 40% of your staff, you can't do your job.

CUNNEEN: Yes, and not knowing which service has better or worse sort of stats there. I think that comes to those unusual circumstances. You know, I've witnessed fire firefighters radioing in about losing a house and then they're told to go to the next house and then they lose that house to bushfires and whatnot. That toll, just adding that up day after day and then backing up the next day. Some of our emergency services personnel, the resilience they display at times is next level. But without support volunteers have to look after themselves. So with that support, they can last longer.

JOURNALIST: How bad did it get during the flood or during the fires, five, six months and years and years of doing this stuff.

CUNNEEN: Unprecedented has been a word well used lately. Yeah, those floods, biggest on record. Most of the state, our resources were stretched thin and it was only through the combination of all the agencies coming together were we able to deliver what we were able to deliver. But that ran for absolute months, probably close to six months by start to finish and then there's the recovery that will take years after, that that's a big toll on the personnel. Having these services to be able to decompress and debrief and just get perspective on what it is, because most of these people actually set themselves a very high standard to they want to deliver as best they can and can feel disappointed if it doesn't meet their own benchmarks. So we've got to control that perspective.

JOURNALIST: Minister McBride, can I ask you about how it's going to work? Thank you so much. I appreciate that. So I suppose we'll be talking about post facto so it's gone six months, and then you see a psychologist is that sort of model we're talking about here?

MCBRIDE: So with the National Framework, we want to see a level of coordination and consistency so that when a disaster occurs, in the recovery and in the aftermath, because as Robert has said, sometimes it's a cumulative toll on an individual and on a unit like the SES unit, here at Queanbeyan. So with these two services, they're quite complementary. So with the one through the Australian Psychological Society, there is a group of dedicated volunteer clinical psychologists who are actively in the community, looking for those early signs of distress, to be able to make sure that any first responder can then be properly assessed, and then triage them to the right type of support and care. The other stream of this is with the Black Dog Institute and their National Emergency Workers Support Service. This one is quite complementary to what already exists within services like the SES where they have EAP and peer support, but what it means is that somebody who might feel more comfortable having a confidential conversation with someone that is outside of their service, but understands the unique impacts on people who are working as first responders. They'll be able to go online, do a self assessment in their own time and confidentially and then they'll be linked in with the right sort of supporting care through the Black Dog Institute. That might be via telehealth, so someone here in Queanbeyan would be able to access that and it might be face to face. That's a series of appointments with a clinical psychologist who's trained as a specialist in the trauma of national disasters and first responders. I was able to visit the Black Dog Institute recently to hear from them and from first responders themselves, there was a police officer who was near Newcastle, talking about their own experience and what it meant to them to be able to access confidentially, and when they were comfortable, that type of professional support and care. How they were able to recover and for people to be able to then continue working as first responders. It's good for the individual. It's fantastic for our community and the services they provide.

JOURNALIST: Is the idea, though, that you can drop tools at any point during a deployment and say I need help now or is the is the intention to the model that it's sort of at the end of the process.

MCBRIDE: We know that the experiences for people are unique, and they're quite complex, depending on the previous trauma that they might have experienced, the current crisis that they're facing, and very often our volunteers are saving their neighbour’s home while their own home might be at risk. So this is something that somebody could access at any point in time. We know that it might be that initial distress, but we know that as a community and as a group of first responders, often this emerges sometime after the disaster, there is often the lag, once we've got that initial rescue and recovery, that this kind of distress starts to rise in communities. But we want to make sure that we build resilience in communities in that capacity, that in the response itself that they're well supported. And then in the aftermath that they can access the right sort of support and care. So at any point in time a first responder can get that support and care they need.

JOURNALIST: I realised this is for first responders, but what about obviously the community itself, you know, the community has houses burned down and flooded out whatever it may be. Obviously, that's a mental health hole as well. Is there another program for those people that you're working on?

MCBRIDE: This Framework was developed by the National Mental Health Commission with the National Emergency Management Agency, and we're doing further work, including through Primary Health Networks, and there's 31 of them across Australia, to make sure that in communities impacted by national disasters, including natural disasters, that we can build that resilience in communities before an event, that they have the right sort of support and care during an event, and then in the aftermath, they can get the support they need. Just recently, we've seen that tragic bus tragedy in Greta and talking to the local mayor there, Jay Suvaal. What has been deployed there, is the Local Police Area Command and the Local Health District and the Recovery Centre where these services might be deployed from. It can happen immediately in the aftermath and ongoing.

JOURNALIST: Yeah, great. And last but not least, how important is it I suppose to see mental health as part of the emergency services response to disaster?

MCBAIN: Look it's incredibly important that we are taking seriously the things that are coming up from communities following a natural disaster and we know that mental health is high on that priority list. Communities go through a disaster, and there is so much angst and trauma at the initial point when we're in the response phase. We know that people go through this cycle at different paces, though, and that trauma can sometimes take a long time to materialise. We're three and a half years on from the Black Summer Bushfires and we now have people accessing mental health support for the first time because they've now got through that process of rebuilding fences or having their house completed, or they've hit another roadblock in terms of their recovery and it's now that they're trying to access those services. So it's incredibly important that we are supporting communities wherever they are across the country. This Framework is obviously a first responder framework. But as you've just heard from Assistant Minister McBride, it's incredibly important that we are there for communities and listening to them about the things that they need. We know that mental health is always high on their priority list.

JOURNALIST: How many people this will help?

MCBAIN: I think as you've heard from Assistant Minister McBride. The statistics currently shows that 39% of first responders are susceptible to PTSD. We know that there are ongoing effects of that. But the work that's been done by organisations like the Black Dog Institute show that with good counselling and good support, recovery is possible. So it's important that we acknowledge this statistics, deal with what we can and that is making sure that we're putting money into a space like this and that we are helping people through the process when they choose to access it. As Minister McBride has said, that could be during an event in their recovery process or years down the track. So this isn't about a one off thing that we're going to do at a point in time. It's about being there and working with our volunteer first responder communities and making sure we're supporting them.

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