WARNING: This article contains content that some readers may find distressing. 

On January 8, a police officer took her own life at the Port Adelaide Police Station.

Her suicide was the third by a serving officer in South Australia in the past six months, and is part of a growing toll within police ranks.

This year, there have been three other deaths by suicide within the force across Australia – two in Victoria and one in Western Australia.

Research by WA’s police union has found the rate of suicide among serving officers has more than doubled in the past decade, and now surpasses the rate of the general population.

“The initial impact is absolutely devastating, every aspect of your life just implodes,” said Wendy McNish, who lost her husband Ray – a police officer at Echuca in northern Victoria – to suicide in 2016.

“You are searching for the support and answers, and in some cases the support didn’t come.”

Wendy McNish lost her husband, Ray McNish, in 2016.(ABC News: Callum Marshall)

That sentiment is familiar to former SA Police officer Matt Newlands — he was almost a decade into his career when he realised his mental health was in decline.

“It felt like all of a sudden I was in a really bad way and didn’t necessarily know it and didn’t necessarily know how to get out of it,” he said.

A year earlier, he had lost a friend and colleague to suicide.

Mr Newlands feared the potential impact on his career of admitting he was struggling, and instead sought psychological support away from the force.

“I had this, I guess, self-belief that if I was to show any sign of perceived weakness then I wouldn’t be able to continue in those roles,” he said.

Matt Newlands was diagnosed with depression and PTSD during his time in the force.(Supplied.)

After getting help, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

“In the months that followed, I continued quite a rapid decline where on one particular occasion I came very close to ending my life,” he said.

Not long after, Mr Newlands was arrested at work for taking a baseball bat that had been seized from a member of the public, and he was sacked in 2016.

The 38-year-old acknowledged he made a foolish decision that ended his policing career, but also said it forced him “to find a new meaning and a new sense of life” — and he now spends his professional time supporting officers.

Mr Newlands said he was “always careful” to acknowledge there could be many factors involved in police deaths by suicide and said it was possible “that there’s been other significant life events that have contributed to their decision-making”.

“But from what we’re seeing … it’s a conversation we need to be continuing to have,” he said. 

Helping those who help

University of Adelaide trauma researcher Miranda Van Hooff said the “biggest predictor” of poor mental health outcomes among service personnel was “cumulative trauma exposure”.

“Nearly every day that police are on the job, they are exposed to multiple different trauma types,” said Dr Van Hooff, who is also executive director of support body Military and Emergency Services Health Australia.

Former Australian Defence Force special operations doctor Dan Pronk said the impact of those “very abnormal exposures” may not initially be evident among frontline workers.

“If you exist within an environment where you’re constantly exposed to things like death, human suffering, and tragedy you can become surprisingly adjusted and desensitised to that,” he said.

“You can continue to function and even thrive, but it is fuelling an ongoing stress response.”

Dr Pronk served in over 100 combat missions as a medic in the Army Special Forces.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

Dr Pronk said it was easy for police officers to see themselves as being the ones who answered the calls for help, “not the ones who ask for help themselves”.

“There can be some really protective factors within cultures in frontline workers, things like mateship, camaraderie, courage,” he said.

“But with that you can build a bit of a stoic, hyper-masculine culture that then can be a bit of a disincentive to put your hand up if you are struggling with a mental injury.”

Dr Van Hooff agreed. She said “service culture” could benefit officers but could sometimes act as a barrier to seeking help.

“It really creates a sense of tribe for the individual where they can feel like other service members have their back … [but] can sometimes discourage vulnerability and also early help-seeking,” she said.

Since leaving the force, Mr Newlands has studied counselling and established a mental health consultancy firm.

Mr Newlands believes a “standardised” one-size-fits-all approach to employee support isn’t the best option for police. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)

He believes first-responder agencies too often rely on “standardised”, one-size-fits-all employee assistance programs.

“That might work in other environments, but it’s not necessarily the best way to support this very unique and very challenging role.”

Mr Newlands said he believed the COVID pandemic, and the emergency regulations that went with it, negatively affected some community perceptions of police.

The height of the pandemic was an especially challenging time for police.(ABC News)

He said new technology meant police were under almost-constant scrutiny, from body-worn cameras used by officers to the public filming interactions on their smartphones.

“[Police] are often under-appreciated, they’re not recognised for the excellent work they’re doing day-in, day-out,” Dr Pronk said.

“When something is perceived to have gone wrong it gets played out in the court of public opinion and on social media.

“They’re thankless roles, I think there’s often a lack of awareness of the individuals themselves within the roles of how much stress they’re under, so they don’t think to look for tools and strategies to be able to de-stress.”

‘Should not be any shame’

For Wendy McNish, the agony of losing her husband wasn’t made any easier by what she went through in the weeks that followed.

“I thought my ‘blue family’ would support me personally in the community, so that brought about a certain amount of isolation,” she said.

Ms McNish received compensation after taking legal action against Victoria Police and reached a settlement that acknowledged Ray’s death was work-related.

She has made it her mission to try to break down the taboos that are attached to suicide, such as the silence that often surrounds an officer’s death.

“There should not be any shame,” she said.

“We should be able to speak about these things, and that’s the way we’re going to make inroads and changes.”

Dr Van Hooff said more support was needed for those who were left behind — but said help also needed to be on offer much earlier than that.

Dr Van Hooff said encouraging officers to seek help would make them role models for others.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

“A big gap at the moment is support services for family members and colleagues who are bereaved by suicide,” she said.

“We need to encourage service members to access care — whether that’s internal to the police force or external, it doesn’t matter.

“You are not letting your team down by seeking help. In fact, you are role-modelling recovery, and you are role-modelling strength, by reaching out and seeking support.”

SA Police declined to comment in relation to this story, but Commissioner Grant Stevens has previously identified recruitment as crucial to taking pressure off police.

SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens has said recruitment and retention are urgent challenges.(ABC News: Carl Saville)

A “major focus”, he said was getting “numbers back to where they should be so we can maintain that level of service that the community has come to expect”.

“It’s no secret that we are facing a challenge, as is every police jurisdiction around Australia, with recruiting,” the commissioner said in February.

But with recruitment comes the challenge of retention.

“Another big thing for us is to make sure that we’re looking after our people.

“That requires us to fill those vacant positions, but also making sure that we’re doing as much as we can to reduce the demand on frontline police.”

Mr Newlands said that, ironically, it was the deficit in police numbers that could be deterring officers from stepping away from their roles to look after their mental health.

Dr Van Hooff said more support is needed for those who are left behind.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“For them to take time off means that they’re not able to help and that has a big impact on their decision-making,” he said.

“They’re very aware of what that does to their mates that are still on the job.

“For others, maybe staying at work is really important too, because it continues to keep that sense of connection, sense of community.

“Most first responders, they love what they do.”