A JOURNEY of 3000km will get under way on July 1 when a group of former and serving first responders sets out from the geographic heart of Australia bound for the heart of its government in Canberra.
Dubbed the Heart2Heart Walk, it is being staged to urge the Federal Government to better support the wellbeing of Australia’s 400,000 volunteer and 80,000 salaried first responders.
The route starts at the Lambert Centre of Australia, and winds through outback South Australia into Broken Hill before following the River Murray and crossing the Murrumbidgee.
It will conclude on September 28, when a petition is presented to the Prime Minister compelling support for all 14 recommendations made following a 2019 Senate Inquiry entitled The people behind 000: mental health of our first responders.
Organiser and Australian Federal Police Detective Sergeant Vince Pannell said first responders have one of Australia’s highest suicide and PTSD rates, and the walk aims to raise awareness as well as funds by putting the spotlight on a national problem too often shouldered in silence.
“The Heart2Heart journey is more than just a walk; it’s our commitment to fighting for better mental health services for all Australian first responders and their families,” Det Sgt Pannell said.
“Compared with the average Australian, first responders are twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts, three times more likely to have a plan for completion, and six times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD.
“We need to ensure these ordinary people who do extraordinary things in protecting, rescuing and caring for people in our community day in and day out receive the support they need.”
The Heart2Heart Walk is already accepting donations, and has prioritised the funding of research into the extent of mental health issues and incidents, and suicide, among former and serving first responders.
“Data available at present is anecdotal; there’s no empirical evidence, so it’s hard to know how big the problem is across the different jurisdictions.”
Det Sgt Pannell said while first responders were inherently willing to deal with challenging situations, and over extended periods, fatigue caused by call-outs or call-aways on top of regular work, and exposure to trauma, can take a terrible toll.
“Part of the problem is the frequency of disasters in a season that used to run from November to March, and now it’s more like September to May.
“The emergency management cycle is about building resilience, response and recovery, and then reviewing what’s happened.
“We do it with the incidents and not the people; when people get broken, they need help too.”
While the national average age life expectancy for Australians is 83, data collected in 2015-16 shows the average for former Australian Federal Police officers is just 62.
Det Sgt Pannell said Heart2Heart hopes to work with authorities to establish an inaugural national committee to represent first responders.
“We want it to help guide an education system for organisations, first responders and their families that can keep people doing the work they love through covering off on mental health.
“We’re not saying Heart2Heart has all the answers, but through research, education and co-operation, we want to help build a framework that puts first responders in contact with those that can help them.”
He said an “amazing and unique spirit” is shared by first responders, who can work together, regardless of the uniform they wear, in emergency situations.
In contrast, first responders often suffer alone post event.
“United we stand, divided we fall.”
“If we don’t fix that, we’re not sending a positive message to people who are considering become first responders, and we’re not supporting the people who have already done so much.”