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Fortem Australia delivers support for First Responders’ mental health

4 min read
Fortem Australia

Fortem Australia is a not-for-profit organisation established in the middle of 2019 as a way to respond to the needs of first responders and their families. The Black Summer bushfires in 2019-2020, and the associated trauma endured by first responder families, further intensified the need for urgent mental health and wellbeing support for these members of our community.

Ever-changing work shifts, lone parenting, worrying about loved ones, and the impact of stress and trauma can take a toll on the family unit. It became clear that first responder families need similar support, provided in a way that serves the unique challenges they face. With practice, research, and the development of well-being exercises, Fortem is able to assist first responders’ families to become healthier and more resilient.

We talked to the team at Fortem Australia about how they have achieved their success.

What was your driving force to continue making a positive impact despite the difficult times?

The difficult times of the last year have been felt acutely by Australia’s first responder community. These women and men support the community without question or a second thought, we need to support them now more than ever, if we don’t the impacts will ripple through individual lives, families and communities.

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New research has highlighted alarming rates of anxiety, depression and burnout potentially leaving Australia with a scar that’s harder to heal than the bushfires, floods, storms, and pandemic of 2019 until the present.

Findings from Charles Sturt University (CSU) add weight to the frontline stories Fortem Australia is hearing from the health and law enforcement workers we support and care for every day.

The paramedics, police officers, and firefighters we see, talk of the real fear they have of bringing COVID home with them to their loved ones – some have taken to sleeping outside the family home to protect their family.”

The CSU study of over 1,500 first responders also highlighted significant pressures around increased workloads, and compounding anxiety related to a constantly changing work environment, access to PPE and clear communication and information.

Going into this, the first responder community was already showing higher signs of mental distress than the general population.

What CSU found should disturb all Australians and requires immediate action.

Key findings from CSU:

  • The proportion of respondents with severe depression and anxiety was 10 and 4 times higher (respectively) than the general population.
  • The level of workplace burnout was very high with over half showing high levels of emotional exhaustion (burnout). 40% of respondents are considering quitting their current job.

Our community can’t afford to lose these key people and the expertise, skill and empathy they offer, especially at this time. We have moral duty to listen and respond to their call for help and support. The report makes eight recommendations that turn the powerful voice of first responders into action.

Recommendations six and seven are what already inspire the work of Fortem Australia, and we are well placed to grow and deepen the impact we are having now in Victoria, NSW, ACT and Queensland.

First responders are calling for a range of mental health support services that are made available not just within the workplace but outside work, and within their social networks – supports that harness the power of community connection.

The day-to-day opportunities Fortem provides first responder families to connect socially are a great example and underpin our deeper clinical support.

Since the Black Summer Bushfires, over 6,000 people have felt the benefit of our locally based well-being activities and over 500 psychology sessions have been conducted.

93% of participants say they felt the benefit of our approach; the CSU study is further proof that engaging those workplace social networks is critical in first responder mental health and fitness.

First responder families need Fortem Australia and the support and understanding of the wider community now more than ever.

What tools helped you achieve your success?

The relationships that Fortem Australia has in the towns and cities where we currently work have been the backbone of our success.

Fortem staff, on the ground, dealing directly with local first responder families have allowed us to see the need directly and work with communities on tailored and unique actions that look to build mental fitness and resilience.

Fortem currently has staff in South East Queensland and Northern NSW, Mid-North Coast NSW, Sydney, Illawarra and Shoalhaven, Bega Valley, Gippsland, Melbourne, and the Canberra Region.

Our connections and relationships within the management and leadership structures of first responder agencies have also been key to our evolution and success.

This goes to the heart of the work and values that Fortem drives – that relationships and connections are key to building resilience and health.

What can you say about being a finalist in the Third Sector Awards 2021?

Being a finalist is a huge honour for everyone in the Fortem team. We have grown fast and worked hard, and this recognition gives us an opportunity to reflect on our journey, review what needs to be done, and fills our tank with the encouragement and enthusiasm that’s needed for continued growth and success.

To be included in such a distinguished group of finalists also fills us with confidence that the wider Australian community has the capacity, skill and empathy to rise to any challenge that comes our way.

Want to be equipped with practical tools and strategies to overcome barriers and capture opportunities? Join this year’s Third Sector Live event.

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Lourdes Antenor is an experienced writer who specialises in the not-for-profit sector and its affiliations. She is the content producer for Third Sector News, an online knowledge-based platform for and about the Australian NFP sector.


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