This article is written by Emma Reynolds and is originally published in News.com.au.
THE day Peter Kirwan sat his children down and admitted he wasn’t doing a good job as a parent was the hardest of his life.
The Sydney firefighter’s decline was a slow one, which he traces back to the day he was injured in a fire truck collision and damaged his back, leaving him suffering from chronic pain.
“Here I was, a 36-year-old male firefighter who suddenly had his whole future turned upside down. It wasn’t the way I had intended my future to be.
“The back injury put me on permanent light duty. I was no longer on the fire trucks, I was working in the rescue training team at the time and I was told I was never going back on the fire truck.
“If I had to cough, I would have to brace myself because I didn’t have the strength to cough and it would literally bring me to my knees.”
Peter descended into a vortex of depression and anxiety, behaving in a way that now makes him ashamed. “I would isolate myself from my family, I would be short tempered, aggressive, I wasn’t violent but I was certainly aggressive. I didn’t like being interrupted and, I mean, I could have just been watching television.
“I wasn’t sleeping, I would lay in bed at night worrying about what had happened that day, or the day before and then I’d be worrying about what was going to happen the next day. I would replay events over in my mind from that day, or the next day, I’d be trying to pre-empt what was going to happen and I’d be trying to work out a response to something that may not have even happened.”
“It was like that fight-or-flight thing where your body’s preparing to deal with it so your heart rates up and your adrenaline’s up, it’s that hypersensitivity,” he said.
His boss told him to go home, but he was struggling to drive, so he pulled over for a conversation with a friend. By the time he reached home an hour later, he had a series of terrified voicemails from the manager.
“They started out quite calm, just sort of checking that I was OK,” he said. “By the end of it there was this fear in her voice that I’d never heard in anyone before and she thought I’d done something stupid.”
That was a wake-up call for Peter, and he began getting help. He realised his injury had shaken his whole sense of identity. He had bought into the stereotype of what a firefighter should be: strong, reliable, a protector — not someone who needed protection themselves.
In fact, Peter’s experience is remarkably common, and is part of a news.com.au series this week on Australia’s deadly workplace stress crisis, which is costing our economy a fortune. There are specific risk factors for suffering from work-related mental health issues. One is chronic injury. Another is lacking control over what you do. Another is working in the emergency services. Another is fitting the image of the hardworking, stoic male.
While no one is immune from mental health issues, emergency workers such as firefighters and paramedics have an elevated risk. Other roles in the medical industry — doctors, nurses, dentists and vets — also rank higher than most jobs for suicide, thanks to daily contact with death and trauma, the access to means to suicide, high demand and low control — as well as gender issues.
High-pressure professions with extreme stress and long hours such as lawyers and bankers are high risk, and at the other end of the scale, so are low-skilled jobs, in which workers have little job control and high job insecurity.
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