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“The young boy’s name was Fletcher. Every year in November, I remember his name. I had attended cot deaths before but this one affected me quite heavily because my child was the same age as that baby. It has affected me over the last twenty years.”
Sergeant Glenn Peters joined the police force over 32 years ago. Now in his fifties, he has encountered more trauma than most people could imagine.
He’s been the first cop to arrive at death scenes; he’s witnessed civilians committing suicide; he’s handled domestic disputes and has attended countless car accidents.
Yet afterwards, the support was often inadequate, sometimes as little as the offer of a pamphlet.
Now, a new program shows exercise could be key to helping reduce the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Sgt Peters believes many police officers have their own Fletcher, someone who constantly reminds them of the fragility of life.
“I've had some terrible experiences in the job but they’re things that just have to be dealt with,” Sgt Peters said.
“People rely on you to do it and you just can’t walk away. But no, there’s not a lot of support from the organisation.”
The New South Wales police force is ageing and with it, the prevalence PTSD is likely increase.
In 2012, only 4% of police officers were older than 55, but by 2026 this number is forecasted to rise to 12%.
PTSD is a condition that doesn’t discriminate. However, psychotherapists have found that in most cases there’s not just one incidence that leads to the condition. Emergency service workers have often dealt with a career’s worth of trauma before symptoms occur.
“As this stage it doesn’t seem to have affected me,” Sgt Peters said.
“I know that PTSD may not affect you straight away, it may be slight build up.
“I'm not looking forward to what might be at the end if it does affect me.”
Dr Simon Rosenbaum from the Black Dog Institute, believes that exercise can help manage the side effects of highly traumatic experiences.
His work with army veterans and retired police officers showed that exercise can have a significant effect on reducing and preventing PTSD symptoms.
“There was definitely a clear additive effect of exercise on usual care, in terms of reducing symptoms,” Dr Rosenbaum said.
“That was not just symptoms of PTSD but symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, and in improving physical health.”
“It can engage people more than traditional services.”
Although the Police Association offer services such as the Career and Resilience Education Program, most of these mental health strategies focus on traditional methods, such as counselling.
Exercise as an additive form of treatment not only builds upon the benefits of professional therapy, but is also an accessible way for police officers to manage their health without needing clinical treatment.
“Particularly people who come from highly masculine environments, like emergency services, seeking mental health treatment in the traditional sense may not be acceptable,” Dr Rosenbaum said.
“There's still a stigma around that.”
Even as little as 60 minutes per week of exercise can prevent 12-17% of incidences of depression and other mental health issues such as PTSD.
Steve Hungerford, a Detective Senior Constable of the NSW Homicide Squad, has investigated murders for over ten years.
The 50-year-old detective hits the gym after every shift to not only keep up with the physical demands of the job, but to also release the stress that comes with it.
“I find that coming to the gym afterwards means that I’ve left work behind for the day,” Mr Hungerford explained.
“It’s beneficial for my job but it’s also a stress relief. It rejuvenates me and clears my head.
“That’s why I do it, but I don’t actually know how that happens. I just enjoy exercise.”
Like Sgt Peters, the detective is regularly exposed to traumatic experiences and acknowledges that they could significantly affect his mental health in the future.
“I try to leave work behind me each day,” Mr Hungerford said.
“Hopefully PTSD doesn’t affect me, but you just don’t know do you?”
Police officers are required to maintain certain physical qualifications. Each officer must annually complete mandatory weapons training and officer survival techniques.
Despite the physicality of the job, there are no mandatory fitness checks.
After police recruits leave the academy, there are no ongoing fitness requirements.
With no incentive to maintain the physical demands of the job, ageing police officers may become inactive and more prone to be hurt on duty.
As police who joined the force prior to the 1988 First State superannuation scheme have a pension for life, most have retired from the Blue Line well-before sixty years old.
As the next generation of officers approach retiring age, those with inadequate super will financially be forced to remain in the force. With no pension, these officers will have no income protection insurance should they get injured past the age of sixty.
Officers who joined the force after 1988 are concerned with how they will cope with the physical and emotional demands of policing into their senior years.
“It will be a huge issue,” Mr Hungerford said.
“Even though I’m pretty fit - I’m probably above average for my age - there’s no guarantee that I can keep going at this rate.
“I don’t know many police who are sixty now, but we’re going to make it. We’re all going to sixty plus," he said
“Without the pre-eighty-eight pension, we’ll be forced to stay longer and the organisation will get a lot older. Physically and emotionally it will get pretty tough.”