Australian Police are Downplaying their Suicide Problem
Officially, 47 Australian police officers died by suicide between 2000 and 2011. The real number is undoubtedly higher.
Canberra’s National Police Memorial doesn’t list suicides. Nor does any other state memorial. Image via Caroline Ramsden
A report published by Australia's National Coroner’s Information System (NCIS) claims 47 members of the nation's police force died by suicide between July 1, 2000, and Aug 22, 2011. As it turns out, this number is an estimate, and a low one at that. For starters, when a coroner investigates a death with an ambiguous cause—such as a clean-living officer who dies by overdose, or in a car that drives off a bridge—these aren't listed as suicides. Also unlisted are officers who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and retire, only to suicide later. These deaths are confined to a footnote observing, “there were a further eleven cases where the deceased was a retired or former police offer.” And finally, there are cases that simply fall through the gaps.
On April 20 2007, Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Audrey Fagan, hanged herself in a luxury apartment at Queensland’s Hayman Island. Fagan was originally born in Ireland but she worked in the ACT where she’d lived for 26 years. Regardless, the NCIS report doesn’t mention this case, nor does it list a single police suicide from the ACT.
All of this is to say that officers are taking their own lives, and police management have no idea of the true numbers. Neither does any government department, although a recent study found suicide is underestimated in the general population by 9.2 percent. And because the police force is a microcosm of people exposed to tragedy, the incidence of PTSD and therefore suicide, is undoubtedly higher.
It's not that police management don’t care. Being an organisation run on inadequate public funds, and comprised of strong, self-sufficient employees, tallying honest suicide numbers becomes a low priority. They want to understand the situation, but the two factors – money and culture – get in the way. And it’s hard to change something that’s misunderstood.
Let’s start with money. Australia’s first thorough review of police suicides was published in NSW in 2007. Forensic psychologist Dr Stephen W. Barron was a police inspector at the time, and he was asked to comb a wide range of internal information and coroner records so his numbers were as accurate as possible. What he found was that 35 NSW police officers died by suicide between 1990 and 2005, “nearly 20 percent of the total serving police officer mortality group.” And what happened next? “Well it’s not clear what, if any, impact was made,” says Barron. “The number was bigger than they were expecting. It was just too hard.”
Since then, inquiries into police suicide have been unanimously handled offsite by universities without the access afforded to Dr Barron. This is the case in Victoria, where a current review has been mostly outsourced to Melbourne University. And why? It could be because Dr Barron put the word suicide to all sorts of deaths that were previously car accidents or overdoses. That admitted responsibility, and made the force liable for damages. And although it’s rare for a workplace to be made responsible for a suicide, years after a workplace incident, there is a landmark example in the UK. In 2002, a man named Thomas Corr threw himself off a multi-story car park, six years after an industrial accident. His wife sued the company for £750,000, and the High Court ruled in her favour in 2008.
Compounding the fear of lawsuits is a mortal fear of insurance premiums. In 2008, a year after Dr Barron’s review, the NSW Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat announced their support program needed “more flexibility”. There had been several shake ups to the NSW police pension since 1988, but in January 2012 they finally outsourced all claims to one of Australia’s largest life insurance agencies, TAL. Fairfax Media reported in 2013 that although NSW police paid TAL around $100 million for the service, only $133,471 was paid out to officers. This might seem a piddling amount, but the NSW Audit Office still insisted TAL’s pay-outs were costing too much in premiums. “The NSW Police Force must maintain the number of claims, payments and medical discharges close to current levels,” it said. “[That] should lower the premium.”
Dr Barron’s report recommended extended support, which called on money that didn’t exist, and tempted lawsuits. From there on it seemed prudent to underestimate suicides numbers, and try to remedy the problem in the dark. Unfortunately, this is only made more difficult by a workplace that, consciously or otherwise, discourages employees from admitting they need help. And here we strike the problem of police culture.
NSW Detective Sergeant Ashley Bryant died by suicide in Dec 2013. Image via Deb Bryant.
In December 2013, Detective Sergeant Ashley Bryant, made this call to 000 from a waterfall near Byron Bay: “I suffer post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “I can no longer live with the trauma of it and I want this to go to the coroner... There needs to be more things put in place for what happens.” And then after hanging up, he killed himself.
Nine months later Ashley’s wife, Deb, explains the long road to his death. “Ash had spent his entire life trying to be strong,” she says. “His embarrassment in admitting he had a problem meant he probably stayed at least 10 years longer than he should have in the job. As a consequence, by the end, he was deeply affected and struggled to cope with how he felt.”
Deb claims that in his case, admitting weakness didn’t solve his problems. “Once you’re medically retired,” she says, “the police injury advisors have no more contact with you. They didn’t even have someone ring [Ash] or come and see him. That’s one of the issues. After all these years, they can’t even be bothered to send a Commander around to see if there’s anything they can do. Where’s their duty of care? It’s not acceptable to let these injured officers fend for themselves against multinational insurance corporations, whose aim is to deliver a profit to their shareholders at the expense of the injured”.
This sense of managerial apathy is widespread. So too is the idea that police hierarchy disparage weakness, which has led to a pattern of suicide that’s sadly unique to the force. Within the 2011 NCIS suicide report, death by firearm is the most common method, with 19 cases since 2000—four more than the next most common technique, hanging. “This is often a way to express anger,” says Dr Barron. “Officers use their service firearms while they’re actually at work. I’ve seen cases such as one where a female officer shot herself in the station basement after a dispute.”
To their credit, police management recognise their officers' reluctance to come forward. Victorian Police Sergeant Jo Stafford won’t address cultural machismo, but she wrote a statement conceding that “the reluctance of a member to engage and ask for help because of the perceived threat to career progression is a real problem.” According to her, this was one of the issues behind the Victorian inquiry. As Fairfax revealed, of the seven Victorian police officers who committed suicide over the past 30 months, not one of them had sought help from the internal welfare unit.
In many ways, the force’s struggle to deal with mental health is not because they don’t have empathy. It’s simply the product of an organisation built to fight crime, where strength is rewarded over weakness. As Dr Barron says “I’ve been to police funerals and I can tell you, they care very genuinely care for their people.” It’s therefore just a question of how that care can be turned into support.
Deb Bryant admits that change is difficult, but she thinks it should still be a priority. As she says, “Being an active, frontline police officer has a shelf life. It’s just not possible to face the trauma and grief that these men and women see on a daily basis, and expect to remain mentally unscathed. The police forces of Australia need to provide a holistic approach to this issue. It’s not a unique situation and the fact that each state looks at it individually is a waste of time and money.”
Undoubtedly mental health support within the force is changing, but the immediacy and breadth of those changes depend on analysis. And that’s currently blinded by a fear of lawsuits, insurance premiums, and an old boys culture that’ll take money to fix. As Deb says, “While [police management] sit on their hands, more and more officers succumb to their injuries and more families are left to deal with the aftermath. I do not want to see any other officers, or their families, suffer in the way Ashley and my family did. That, for me, is the core of this whole issue.”
For help or information call Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au
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