Tackling the wider problem of trauma

As chief of defence from 1998 to 2002, Barrie played an integral part in deploying soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq, post-9/11.

But it was after he left the role and the demployments continued, often with the same group of soldiers over and over again, he knew it was impossible for the soldiers to not be seriously affected by what they had seen and experienced.

When he started digging into the problem, he realised it was far bigger than he first anticipated.

Firefighters, police officers, survivors of domestic violence and psychiatrists are just some of the groups of people prone to the condition, and a lot of it goes unnoticed and untreated.

FearLess is now trying to get the national conversation moving around the issue, and acknowledge the whole problem to support trauma survivors and the people that care about them.

In this week’s Changemaker, Barrie talks about the need for collaboration in the space, the path he took to get into the sector, and how to slowly tackle the problem.

You served as chief of the Australian Defence Force, did that influence where you are now?

I was the chief of the Australian Defence Force up until 2002, and after 9/11 I was deeply involved in the first commitment of deploying our troops to Afghanistan in 2001. I then spent a few years at Oxford, and returned in 2012 and started to get really worried about what we had done after getting involved in Iraq.

It had dragged on for so long, with so many deployments, and I also discovered that some of the soldiers had been on eight or nine missions to the Middle East. Frankly I think that is unconscionable, and I don’t think any government with responsibility for our community should be committing our soldiers to that sort of tasking. These people have served overseas longer than anybody did in the First or Second World Wars, and I don’t know how you tell your partner or children that you’re going back again, and again, and again. You would have to be deeply affected by that. That was the genesis really, thinking about what could I do to try and help those kinds of people.

Admiral Chris Barrie AC

Were you surprised by the enormity of the issue when you started FearLess?

The interesting thing for all of us has been that it’s not just about military and veteran’s, but the rest of the Australian community. Every rock we have lifted in the last six years has a story about post-traumatic stress. People either talk about themselves, their families, their neighbours, people who went to school with them, and we have not yet met anyone who cannot tell us a story about it. This tells us that we have an enormous problem out in our community.

From where I sit, I don’t see a lot happening to try and solve it. What I see is a focus on the military and veterans – not more than 70,000 of them, mind you – but what about the other one million people? They don’t get any help, and a lot of them struggle to even confess that they’ve got a problem, because many would lose their jobs. It’s a very big issue, and it’s just the tip of an iceberg.

What separates PTSD from other issues?

Unlike almost all the other mental health disorders, you aren’t born with PTSD, you can only get it from what we call a lived experience. If you broke your leg, and went to work, they’d say, “Golly, you better take some time off while you get your leg fixed”. If you have had a post-traumatic stress problem, they don’t do that. They tell you to go and see a psychologist three times and maybe you’ll be fixed, and if not, you’ll lose your job.

Of course, unlike most of the other mental health issues, this is not about you, it’s about your injury, and that’s a really important distinction. I think by making that distinction we will help reduce the consequences of stigma in the mental health space, which affects so many people who don’t want to know they have a problem.

Who are the other groups of people we don’t hear about so much that might experience PTSD?  

The impact of trauma on individuals sometimes has no effect beyond the immediate aftermath and getting over it. Let’s take the events of last Friday in Christchurch – an absolutely awful event – which we were all affected by. But in a few weeks time, most of us will be over it, the people who have got PTSD won’t be over it, and for them it will be a lasting issue in their lives. The difficulty is that we can’t know at each traumatic event, who is going to be affected and who’s not.

Then of course, for some people it’s not one or two events, it’s 10 events. Firefighters, trauma surgeons, psychiatrists deal with a culmination of issues which might all of a sudden become too much. For many firefighters for example, if they get a call at 3am and it’s about a road accident, one of their first questions might be “Are there any kids involved?” Because if there are kids involved they don’t want to go, they’ve done enough of it, and it gets to them. Policing is the same…how many times do they have to confront people who are in a very ugly state of mind.

In a defence organisation, we train for what we do, we have a reserve capacity, we equip people to respond to incidence very efficiently. We give them almost everything we can in order to reduce the impact on their afterlives. Few of these other people get this help.

Do you think there needs to be a change in attitude around how workplaces view professions that deal with traumatic situations?

In 2016 we became very involved with an organisation called Australia 21, looking at the consequences of PTSD in first-responder groups. If you are a police commissioner you are not funded to have reserve police officers. I’ve seen many of these people break down in tears because things they dealt with have had a lasting impact on them. We don’t seem to have the ability or the resistance in our system to allow them the time off to get over these issues. Because there is no funding for spare capacity, it means people have to be at work at 8am on Monday, irrespective. Otherwise, it’s your job. So you can see where that’s a problem.

Now  you’ve identified it as a problem, what are the next steps and big aims of your organisation to work toward a solution?

It’s not a simple solution, but what we do know is there is 3,500 groups all around Australia, working on bits and pieces. From where we sit in FearLess, we know that most of these organisations don’t talk to each other, and we think it’s time to lift the lid on that and try to come together, so all of us speak with one voice, and maybe we can get something really done. My belief is that Australia and New Zealand could build the world’s best treatment and research centres we could offer, for very badly affected people, a kind of help they could only dream about now.

What was it like moving from a position like the chief of the defence force, to chair of a charity?

Coming from an organisation of managing 100,000 people, to trying to manage a charity like this with seven people was quite different. We’re all volunteers so we don’t pay ourselves a cent, but we are diligent, we connect up, we care a lot about what we are doing. I also have a wonderful board, who all have stories to tell.

What does your day as chair of FearLess look like?

At the moment, we are running around in the lead up to our national conference in August. That’s taking up a lot of time in terms of organising, and attracting participants. We want to fill a room up of people, and we want to have people talk to each other about being fearless in post-traumatic stress. We don’t see that as being the end either, we want it to be the start of a national conversation.

How would you say this experience has changed you?

I like to keep busy, and I believe in a life well lived. I know this is a huge problem that people like me can solve, so frankly I’m going to get on and solve it.

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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