MickSearsWEBSergeant Mick Sears was medically retired from the WA Police Force after giving 29 years and eight months of his life to the community of Western Australia. He was thrown out last month, still under the same process as officers who have committed serious acts of misconduct.

When his medical retirement letter came on November 17, it was years in the making. After being at many small country police stations, Mick was exposed to serious and damaging trauma almost on a weekly basis.

Despite the loss of a beloved and fulfilling career, Mick says he is still lucky to walk away with his life. He credits coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with the successful completion of the Hollywood Clinic’s Trauma Recovery and Growth Program and its in-patient services.

Mick says his struggle with PTSD robbed him of his career and marriage but he is speaking publicly for the first time in the hope of encouraging other police officers to see the signs of this psychological injury and to seek help before it is too late.

It was about a decade ago when Mick first caught a glimpse of how the effects of trauma were taking hold.

He was Officer In Charge of Boddington Police Station at a changing time for the small mining town. The Boddington Gold Mine was under construction and there were about 10,000 contractors driving the country roads every day.

“There was just sheer carnage on the roads,” Mick told Police News.

“We had so many deaths. All of us were doing two or three fatal files and were dealing with a lot of serious crashes.”

Faced with such a huge number of fatalities with only three other officers at the station, it was difficult to get any respite.

“Work wise, I was under a lot of pressure because I just didn’t have the staff. So I was being called out all the time and the lack of sleep just started to get to me,” he said.

The symptoms of PTSD also raised their head after Mick was the initial officer at a horrific murder scene in late 2007.

Stacey Thorne was 22 weeks pregnant when she was stabbed 21 times in her chest. Mick found her bloodied body after she tried to crawl from her home down the street to get help.

Court documents described the murder as “savage and determined” and also detailed how the offender, Scott Douglas Austic, had left her to die a slow and painful death.

“You also left Ms Thorne to bleed to death in her bedroom and she did not immediately die,” Justice Peter Blaxell said in 2009 while sentencing Austic to a minimum of 25 years in prison.

“In that regard it is dreadful to contemplate the agony she must have suffered during her last 20 to 30 minutes.”

After attending the murder, Mick again knew he wasn’t coping.

“I started to get angry about things and that wasn’t me; I was more of a joke-about type of person. My marriage was starting to suffer because I wasn’t talking about what I was seeing,” he said.

Mick did reach out to Health and Welfare (as it was then named) but he felt he was not appropriately cared for.

So, instead of taking time away from policing to process the trauma and focus on self-care, Mick packed up his belongings and transferred to Newman, where he thought he could make a difference to the lives of Aboriginal people.

But the same dark shadow of PTSD followed him.

“I just about burnt myself out,” he said. “I just found myself getting angry. I would be upset and cry at the drop of a hat.”

After years of psychological trauma, Mick was nearly ready to erupt.

“But I just threw myself into work,” he said.

However, his then-wife was transferred to Perth, leaving Mick alone in the town for seven months.

Eventually, Mick secured a spot at Regional Operations Group South. But the same cycle of being unable to process the trauma again made him pack up after his tenure and move to Blackstone MFPF.

He said he had to get back to the bush and away from large crowds. Despite being at one of the most remote stations in WA, his troubles kept him company.

“I remember one time I was travelling to Alice Springs by myself and I came across a horse that had been hit by a car on one of the outback roads. I sat with it for about two hours because its legs were broken. It was a really hot day and I gave it some water but it took me two hours to get the courage to shoot it,” Mick said as he held back tears.

The penultimate moment for Mick was when he was determined to end his life inside the Blackstone MFPF.

Mick walked into the armoury, took out his police-issued glock and placed it to his temple.

In that moment between life and death, Mick’s mind filled with memories of his family. He did not want to leave them without a son, husband and brother. His mind also turned to his colleague, who would have been confronted with the task of cleaning up Mick’s body.

He returned the gun to his holster and walked out.

This would be one of the last times Mick would ever walk out of a station as a serving police officer.

“I went home and just fell apart,” he said. He then spent 16 weeks at Hollywood Clinic and was put on medication to control the symptoms of PTSD.

After a year of sick leave, Mick was boarded out medically unfit.

“I got a Section 8 last Thursday (November 17) because I’m not a fit person, which is probably right. I’m not a fit person to be a police officer now, but to be thrown out under the same section that somebody who committed a serious offence would be thrown out, is wrong.”

“My marriage is finished and it’s very hard to keep on going,” he said.

However, being able to process the trauma, understand PTSD and learn coping strategies through the Trauma Recovery and Growth Program has helped Mick immeasurably.

“It’s the only thing that’s kept me alive,” Mick said.

“I learnt that it’s an injury, it’s not just an illness. Your brain is not designed to see the traumas and deal with the things we do without some coping mechanisms.”

Dr Matthew Samuel is a psychiatrist with 21 years’ experience and is the program’s clinical lead.

The need for a first responder PTSD course was recognised about five years ago when they started receiving calls from paramedics, military veterans, police officers and firefighters needing help to recover from the trauma of their jobs.

The four-week program was borne out of a general 10-week PTSD course.

The first responder course consists of group therapy, individual psychotherapy and provides families with the opportunity to understand what their loved ones are going through.

However, before the frontline officer or veteran enters the program, they are comprehensively assessed by Dr Samuel and his colleagues.

“We look at the diagnosis first and then we look to see if there are any co-morbid conditions, such as alcohol abuse, sleeping pill addiction or whether they have any other substance abuse,” Dr Samuel said.

The clinic team also look at other physical injuries such as traumatic head injuries, which can often be associated with long-term anxiety symptoms. They also determine if the officer has any other metabolic syndromes like diabetes or hypertension, which could diminish the effectiveness of medication.

“A lot of people with PTSD also suffer from poor sleep, so sleep hygiene is very important. We make sure that a sleep assessment is done and then we look at whether they need any short-term medications… before we start the therapy.”

The group sessions help the officer understand that they are not alone with their PTSD and others also experience similar symptoms.

“We cannot delete their trauma but what we can do is to help them understand the trauma and teach them various coping strategies such as relaxation methods,” Dr Samuel said.

One of the treatments the clinic uses to help patients process trauma is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

This treatment is based on the idea that the brain does not process traumatic events properly and that eye movement, guided by a therapist, can help the person recall the traumatic event and process it.

Approximately three to four programs are run throughout the year, with a maximum of eight participants per group.

The groups can consist of a mix of frontline first responders and service veterans and the clinic treats about 30 to 40 people per year.

“But we know that the statistics show, this is not the number of people with PTSD. It is a significant underrepresentation,” he said.

Many first responders do not put their hands up for help, which accounts for the low number of people receiving treatment.

“A lot of police officers have a lot of pride in the work they’ve done and they don’t want to be seen as weak,” Dr Samuel said.

“There is a culture that when people put their hand up and say they’ve had a nervous breakdown, they are stigmatised in the workplace, especially in policing.”

So Dr Samuel and his team work very closely with the officer to ensure they earn their trust and confidence.

“One important aspect is that we are far removed from the police force. Although we get paid by the police force, we have no obligation to the department. Our obligation is to the person sitting in front of us,” he said.

During the program, discussions are also had with the officer to determine their future path.

“It involves careful negotiations with the police officer and how, in a dignified way, what our recommendation is, and to make sure that we support that person to either early retirement or to seek another job, or if they can be retrained or employed as non-operational.”

Dr Samuel estimates that more than 50 per cent of participants return to work.

“About 10 per cent of people are not suitable to continue frontline work, so we encourage them to medically discharge and we support them through that process. We also keep them in ongoing therapy.”

However, Dr Samuel is disappointed with the medical retirement process currently used by the WA Police Force and said it was unfair on the officer.

“It doesn’t do that police officer justice,” he said. “It is not a dignified way to exit the police. They are wounded in service and we don’t give that credit to them for the amount of work and the commitment they gave.”

Mick also mirrors Dr Samuel’s comments.

“Not so long ago I was a well-respected member of the community. Everywhere I went I tried to help people. You work with guys and girls that feel the same way you do, but now, it feels as though I have just been thrown on the scrap heap. There is no support within the Agency,” he said.

Through this program, Mick was also able to meet the requirements to be granted an incredible service dog, Jasmin.

The Belgian Malinois was a former military dog who now helps Mick with his anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

“It was recognised that I really needed a dog. A psychiatrist signed all the paperwork and I was given Jas through the group Veterans Helping Veterans,” Mick said.

“She’s trained to wake me up if I’m having nightmares and when I was having flashbacks, she would look after me. She just knows, she picks up when I’m not well. Without her, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Mick said he now wants to work with frontline workers to raise awareness of PTSD.

“I need something to keep me going, that’s why I want to try and help out my colleagues and other emergency service workers. There are so many people who suffer with this,” he said.

“Most people have a glass half full of life’s pressures. Well, we have that but then we have our job pressures on top.”

Dr Samuel said there is currently a memorandum of understanding between the Hollywood Clinic program and Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defence.

He is seeking the same arrangement with the WA Police Force.

“What the MOU would do would give us access to police officers without a GP referral, then they can just call us,” he said.

“The more that door is open, then the more people we can help.”

By. Jessica Porter

To find out more about the program, visit www.hollywoodclinic.com.au/Our-Programs/Trauma-Recoveryand-Growth-Program or attend your local GP for a referral.

This article contains descriptions of traumatic incidents. If this raises issues for you, please contact the Employee Assistance Program counsellors on 1300 361 008.