28 February 2019

Road to Mental Readiness for first responders is groundbreaking

| Genevieve Jacobs
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NSW Deputy Mental Health Commissioner Allan Sparkes, Canadian High Commissioner Paul Maddison, and ACT Lifeline CEO Carrie Leeson. Photo: G. Tsotsos.

Allan Sparkes is one of Australia’s most highly decorated citizens: he is the only Australian to be awarded both Australia’s highest civil award; the Cross of Valour (CV). and a subsequent Australian Bravery Decoration; the Commendation for Brave Conduct. And he knows all too well the toll taken when your job as a first responder is to run towards danger rather than away from it.

More than 20 years ago he was a Coffs Harbour policeman, responding to reports that a child had been swept into a stormwater drain. It was pitch dark, the water was icy and Sparkes could hear (and still hears, to this day) the screams of a dying child deep within the stormwater system.

Initially trapped himself after entering the drains, he re-entered the drains and fought his way to the confluence of six drains, flooded almost to the roof with torrents of water.

“After crawling some 30 metres against the flow of the stormwater pipe I found him hanging onto a piece of timber, absolutely terrified and yelled to him to let go. I grabbed him, wrapped him in my arms and I told him to thank God and then we just wept,” he says.

These days, Allan Sparkes is no longer a policeman, but it’s telling that as NSW Deputy Mental Health commissioner, first responders are a significant priority for him.

In an Australian first, Lifeline has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Commission to import a groundbreaking mental health program for first responders. Sparkes was a strong driver for the program and is among the first handful of accredited trainers in Australia.

Launched at the Australian War Memorial on Monday (25 February), Road to Mental Readiness was initially developed by Canadian Navy Seals and recognises that the bravery and sacrifice asked of everyone from police to defence forces comes with risks to mental wellbeing as well as physical health.

Canadian High Commissioner Paul Maddison, AFP chief Andrew Colvin, ACT commissioner Ray Johnstone, Deputy Mental Health Commissioner Alan Sparkes and AWM director and Lifeline patron Brendan Nelson joined Lifeline ACT CEO Carrie Leeson and Canadian Mental Health commissioners who had flown to Australia for the event. Commissioner Colvin announced that the Australian Federal Police will sign up to the program for two years.

Road to Mental Readiness participants categorise where they sit on a mental health continuum, reach for help if needed, utilise a series of stress reduction techniques based on cognitive behavioural therapy and reduce the stigma around mental health issues in a daylong course that addresses stress and building resilience.

“We live in an era of affluence our grandparents could not have imagined,” Mr Nelson said. “But we ask ourselves why the leading cause of death from the teenage years to the mid-forties is suicide? In this significant area, we have failed. We have created a society in which far too many of us feel that our lives have neither meaning nor purpose and that we are not valued by others. What you’ll hear about today is an evidence-based solution to what might appear to be an intractable problem.”

Announcing that the AFP would sign up to the RMR program for two years, Commissioner Colvin said that while no single thing would resolve first responder problems, the Road to Mental Readiness program was evidence-based, tested and peer-reviewed.

“Moreover it focuses on the root causes and helps people build resilience,” he said. “Much of what we do in policing is like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We need to do more to help at the top of the cliff. We are on a steep journey in the AFP and a very difficult one at times. We know we have issues and that we need to do more.”

High Commissioner Paul Maddison, formerly an admiral in the Canadian navy, said he felt a great sense of pride in Canadians and Australians working together. “Australia and Canada have so much in common in almost every space. We should always look towards each other first to ask ‘how are you dealing with this particular challenge?”

Recalling the toll taken on first responders from his own service who dealt with the Halifax Swissair crash in which more than 200 people lost their lives, Mr Maddison said that over a decade later, post-traumatic stress from the body retrieval was still manifesting itself. “That reminds me powerfully that we need to support our first responders through their lifetime for their service to our community,” he said.

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