Narelle Fraser spent her birthday in May 2012 watching child pornography.
A few days earlier, police had seized more than 1700 child abuse videos, and it was Fraser’s job as a detective with the Bendigo Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team to assess the severity of each of them for a magistrate.
Of course I couldn't tell anyone, that’s not something you can come home and talk to your husband about.- Narelle Fraser
After two and a half decades on the job, Fraser had seen it all, but this time was different.
“When I was watching them, there was a reaction that I’ve never ever had before,” she says.
“I thought I was going to be sick.
“I had to turn the mute button on because to hear what I was hearing was unbearable.
“Of course I couldn't tell anyone, that’s not something you can come home and talk to your husband about.”
This would be no day to celebrate a birthday.
In the months that followed, the sound of a ringing phone would send Ms Fraser into a panic, with each new job that came through driving her to the bathroom, sick to the stomach.
This was accompanied by nightmares, flashbacks and uncontrollable bursts of anger.
She would avoid leaving the house because reminders of what she had seen in that room were everywhere.
“I would see kids in a park playing with a dog, you see it all the time, but so many images took me back to what I’d seen,” she says.
In September Ms Fraser would leave work at the Bendigo police station suffering post traumatic stress disorder, never to return to the job she had loved for more than 25 years.
“I was diagnosed the following Monday and I never went back,” she says.
“I was feeling like I was sort of losing control but I didn’t actually understand what was going on.
“I really thought I needed maybe just a bit of a holiday.”
Ms Fraser now realises that her experiences over the years had been gradually wearing down her ability to cope, with every challenging call-out adding to her mental load.
Heather Bancroft is a clinical psychologist and PhD candidate at the Phoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health with years of experience working with emergency services personnel.
She says Fraser’s experiences were not unusual.
“People in high risk organisations like police, paramedics, military personnel and firefighters don’t generally develop PTSD as a result of going to one incident, it’s usually as a result of the cumulative impact of the work,” Ms Bancroft says.
“They’re never able to recover fully because they’re required to go to the next difficult situation.”
To counter this, Ms Fraser says there is a need for cultural change in the way PTSD is dealt with in the police force.
She estimates that “most police people have some form of PTSD”.
Ms Bancroft says part of the problem is that PTSD rates are notoriously difficult to ascertain.
She says studies of its prevalence vary significantly, with those focusing on police fluctuating between seven per cent and 35 per cent.
“I don’t think we know what the prevalence rates are for PTSD in these organisations,” she says.
“I think probably a lot of the prevalence rates are an underestimation because I think a lot of emergency services workers see themselves as rescuers and helpers and when they start to develop symptoms they see that as a sign of weakness.
“I think a lot of organisations have more work to do in terms of reducing the stigma and getting people to put their hand up earlier rather than later."
Ms Fraser agrees, saying stigma is a big part of the problem, though she says this is changing.
“I was very humiliated at being diagnosed with PTSD,” she says.
“I felt I would be judged as being weak and unable to cope, so I didn’t want to tell anyone.
“I think what you need to do is to be able to recognise it and say ‘you know what, I actually think I might be struggling’."
She says she knows of some police who have sought help outside work hours so as to avoid admitting that they’re struggling to their superiors and colleagues.
“I still see my (former) colleagues and they say that is changing, and I hope it is because it needs to,” she says.
“(It's) not just the police force, society need to change its attitude about mental health.”
In a statement Victoria Police acknowledged that “many members experience trauma in some way”.
"Whilst the organisation has made significant changes and cultural shifts in many respects regarding mental health, there still appears to be a persisting fear in the membership of being judged, discriminated against, and not supported. Unfortunately there have been historical examples where disclosures of mental health issues affected individual careers, but there has since been significant work undertaken in terms of education, manager skills and stigma reduction," it reads.
While Ms Fraser was treated well by Victoria Police, both during her career and after her diagnosis, she says there should have been a system in place to monitor the number of tough emotional jobs allocated to each member in a given period.
“I wanted to help my colleagues, I didn’t want them to see deceased little babies, I didn’t want to get them upset but in the end it did me in," she says.
“Everyone’s so busy, they can’t keep an eye on you, I don’t know how you’d do it because we’re all under the pump.”
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