A HUNTER paramedic’s apparent suicide in April has devastated colleagues and raised serious questions about NSW Ambulance support for struggling officers.
The paramedic’s apparent suicide, before completing his shift and while wearing his uniform, is the third by a serving Hunter officer in a decade.
The Newcastle Herald has details of other attempted suicides and two other deaths involving Hunter ambulance personnel, some of whom had abused alcohol and drugs for reasons colleagues and former colleagues linked to work-related stress.
“We went to the funeral and all the ambos were looking at each other,” said a retired former Hunter paramedic who was medically retired in 2013 but remained in regular contact with many serving ambulance officers, including the paramedic who died in April.
“We know it’s not the first suicide and it’s not going to be the last,” the retired paramedic said.
She last had contact with the late paramedic, a Lake Macquarie man in his early 50s, early this year.
“He said the job was worse than it’s ever been in terms of mismanagement, bullying and a failure to respond to clear safety and mental health issues,” the retired paramedic said.
The Hunter paramedic’s death is the subject of NSW Ambulance investigations and a police investigation for the NSW Coroner.
He died six months after NSW Ambulance chief executive Dominic Morgan told a NSW parliamentary inquiry that the agency had “rates of bullying that would not be considered acceptable to us or the broader community and we’re making inroads to address that”.
“We’re on a big journey and a lot of work has been achieved in recent times and there is a long way to go,” Mr Morgan said.
At the paramedic’s funeral, attended by Hunter ambulance officers who worked with the three male officers who have taken their lives in the past decade, Mr Morgan was challenged by the retired female Hunter paramedic.
“I said to him ‘I want to know what you’re going to do’,” she said.
“I feel really frustrated all these years down the track that we’re still having this conversation. I’ve been out of the job for five years and I still get phone calls from people who are struggling, and yet nothing seems to have changed.
“I used to say that the worst we experience on the job should be what we see on the road, not what happens in the station.”
The parliamentary inquiry investigated support services available to emergency services workers dealing with mental health issues from workplace trauma. It also considered the effectiveness of those programs.
The inquiry, which is yet to release a final report, received a Public Service Commission survey saying NSW Ambulance had the highest rates of bullying among emergency services. But records showed just 1 per cent of ambulance staff complaints were referred to the organisation’s professional standards unit.
The retired Hunter paramedic detailed critical incidents after ambulance officers asked to be rostered off because of severe stress, in several cases after raising the issue of self-harm.
Initiatives to support ambulance officers were too often Sydney-based when “It’s the rural guys that really need help”, she said.
In its submission to the inquiry NSW Ambulance said paramedics were subjected to assaults including punching, kicking, spitting, scratching, striking to various body parts, slapping, head-butting, pushing, verbal threats (to kill/harm/intimidate), stalking, being threatened with a knife and having a knife held to the throat.
Between August, 2014 and June, 2017 NSW Ambulance recorded nearly 500 assaults against paramedics, with most prosecuted. The service did not respond to directly to questions about the paramedic’s death or matters raised by the former Hunter inspector.
In a statement NSW Ambulance said the wellbeing of paramedics and call takers was paramount.
“NSW Ambulance provides evidence-based mental health support and treatment services for employees including access to a new chief psychologist, chaplaincy services, grievance contact officers, peer support officers and specialist trauma psychologists,” the statement said.
In February, 2017 the NSW Government provided $30 million towards enhanced health and wellbeing programs for paramedics. In February this year Health Minister Brad Hazzard convened a roundtable to “identify new actions and continuing initiatives to improve paramedic safety”, NSW Ambulance said.
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