Barry Traynor saw a lot during his 30 years as a police officer, including decades serving in Ballarat.
“I joined the police force in 1966, I was stationed in Fitzroy, I came from Ararat where the most violent thing I’d seen was the neighbour’s dog barking at somebody – I go down as a 19-year-old rookie to Fitzroy, and it just completely changed me,” he said.
“A young woman (died) heading to work ran into the tram head-on on Nicholson Street, I remember coming back and doing all the reports – there was no follow-up, it was just ‘you attended a fatal’, and our way of dealing with it was going to the pub and having a few beers.
“That was it, nothing else, no follow ups.”
Understandings of post-traumatic stress and mental health have changed a lot in that time, which is why Mr Traynor jumped at the chance to help his fellow retired police veterans.
A Victorian-first program is providing peer support groups for force veterans, with a 12-month trial in Ballarat, Bendigo, and Geelong.
Mr Traynor is one of two peer support volunteers in Ballarat.
“I’m not qualified, I’m not a psychologist, I’m a peer support officer to stand by and help out – it’s up to them to come to me, just ring me or email me, I’ll help you out,” he said.
“Sometimes they’ll talk about their experiences they’ve had, and you have to be a very good listener.
“They’ll be telling you a story about how they attended a fatal accident or a shooting, and the last thing I, as a former policeman and I know what they’re going through, is to say “oh I can remember one better than that” – that defeats the purpose, you let them run, they tell their story, and you take it all in, and some of the stories I’ve experienced.
“It’s being there to help them get over a few of the hurdles.”
The program is an initiative of Police Veterans Victoria, an independent organisation that grew from a few officers trying to help retirees in 2014.
Chief executive David McGowan said it was now in touch with thousands of former police officers across the state.
“The youngest vet is a 28-year-old, the eldest is 97-years-old, who emailed me and wanted to tell us his story,” he said.
“Once you become a vet, the support network is very limited – in fact, it’s by trial and error we try to support them.
“We want to publicly push awareness of the plight of a lot of veterans, and the trauma many suffer protecting the community – they pay a heavy toll, police veterans are pretty much on their own and that’s a hidden tragedy.”
Mr Traynor, fighting fit in his 70s, said he’s now meeting with four or five veterans a week for a catch-up coffee, dropping them off for appointments, and setting up social events with guest speakers.
“I’ve spoken personally to the police chaplains in Ballarat, I’ve spoken to two psychologists that are willing to be there as a referral for retired police veterans,” he said.
“The problem we’ve got, with retired police, there’s still this 10-foot-tall and bulletproof syndrome – “nothing affects me because I was a cop” – they’re still big and strong, but at the end of the day, when you take your uniform off and head home, take the kids to the park, you’re John Citizen, you’re no different to anyone else and you do have emotions.”
“It’s the perception, they find it a weakness to sit down and say “listen, I need help”.”
That perception is changing, he said – Mr Traynor’s son and daughter-in-law are serving police officers in Ballarat, and even though he’s experienced similar traumatic events to them, the approach to dealing with them is different.
“My (son) does tell me a few things about the suffering and the problems they go through, the pressure, the trauma, it’s just full-on,” he said.
“We’ve got some young police men and women suffering from stress because of the fatals – one policeman had two cot deaths in a week, and he’s got little kids.
“They go to a fatal accident in the middle of the night, it’s cold and wet and miserable, they’re pulling bodies out, they have to get back to work – to have some sort of debriefing, just “how’d you go tonight, how do you feel?”.
“Everyone says, ‘well, that’s the job, you’re paid to do it, that’s what you do’, and I accept all that, but along the line, this continued trauma and violence does wear you down.”
Mr McGowan, a former detective sergeant – “level-headed, well-balanced, a fantastic bloke,” Mr Traynor adds – said the aim of the trial programs is to replicate what the peer support volunteers are doing across the state, then attract proper funding from the state government to broaden programs and access to psychologists.
“Ballarat, in many ways, is the benchmark for us internally, I say we’re trying to get that model running around the state – they have a whole group that meet regularly, support each other, reach out and extend themselves to Police Legacy and trying to get some more community involvement,” he said.
“We don’t have any government support at this point, though I’ve just made a formal submission, and I have members writing to their local members, those conversations have started but we don’t have a firm commitment.
“We need more funding so our operational costs are covered and I’m not spending time rattling tins.
“Our funding (now) comes from serving police members who sign up for a couple of bucks per pay, and some corporate donations, that’s not sustainable.”
Already, with about 80 veterans on the books, Mr Traynor said the trial is making a difference.
“They’re tuned for years on adrenaline, they go to work, do the job, and I’d watch them come through when I was senior sergeant at Ballarat, they’d come through the door raring to go, hyped up – “there’s a shooting”, “there’s a brawl”, they’re on the go,” he said.
“Suddenly, when they’re not doing that, it’s like letting the air out of a balloon, they get flat, and there is a bit of loneliness, so they need to be connected.”
Not every officer might need as much support when they retire – each is different, Mr Traynor acknowledged.
He paused when asked how he deals with his experiences.
“I don’t dodge anything – you know, I don’t think about it, I think about what I can do to help people who are less fortunate, I had a chequered career in the police, I’ve never been interviewed to be a thief or anything dishonest, I am a fairly, well, hotheaded, I’ve been charged with assault after a brawl – there were two of us and eight of them, they attacked us and I knocked out one and split a lip,” he said.
“I don’t suffer from any of that stuff, some people say I should, but no – it affects people differently, there are plenty of retired police out there who aren’t affected, but there’s a majority who are.
“It’ll take a while, but I’m determined to make it work in Ballarat – I’m just a hard-working old copper.”
Victoria Police’s acting health, safety and wellbeing director Dr Jon-Paul Cacioli said Police Veterans Victoria was valuable for officers experiencing poor mental health.
“Victoria Police backs the charity’s important work, primarily through the provision of full-time clinical support to assist its veteran peer officers and unlimited access to counselling for all veterans,” he said in a statement.
“The chief commissioner is patron of Police Veterans Victoria in recognition of its importance to our organisation, while our members generously donate from their salaries to assist its continued work.
“Victoria Police understands many veterans experience symptoms of mental ill health without diagnoses – to this end we have introduced a confidential mental health screening service for employees and veterans.
“This helps participants identify any mental health warning signs and apply interventions to manage these symptoms before they escalate into diagnosable mental health conditions.”
The state government was contacted for comment but no response was received by deadline.
To find out more, head to the Police Veterans Victoria website.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support, phone Lifeline 13 11 14.
Help is also available, but not limited, via the following organisations. The key message is you are not alone.
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
- Mensline: 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au
- Stand By (support after suicide): 1300 727 247
- Ballarat Community Health: 5338 4500
Written by Alex Ford for The Courier – Saturday, 23 July 2022