Mark Thomas had seen his fair share of traumatic scenes in his first seven years with Victoria Police. It was the scene of a suicide he would soon find he was never mentally prepared for.
Mark Thomas was a ways into his policing career before he was injured with post-traumatic stress. He’d been to scenes of suicides, drug overdoses, and deaths; but it was just one scene in 2003 that would change him forever.
“That day, the type of suicide I went to, I can describe the flat in forensic detail,” he says.
“If I could draw, I could capture the deceased down to every line in his face,” he said. “I only looked for the blink of an eye, but I can remember what he was wearing: his hair, face, everything.
I actually physically felt it in my chest. I knew I was there to do a job and had to make sure I did it properly, but this day was significantly different. I don’t know what was about this type of suicide, but it clearly didn’t sit well with me.”
While the effects of the incident weren’t immediately acknowledged by Mark, he says now he was “naive” about mental health and ignored the growing symptoms of post traumatic stress he would experience over the following years.
“Was my bucket full?”, he asks, “did it tip me over the edge?”
“That’s probably a question I’ll never have answered.
I was always aware I would be going to traumatic events, because that’s part of being a cop, but I never considered the mental effects and the toll that it would take on me.”
In February of 2013, Mark was hospitalised and formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. It was this experience at his lowest point that led him to create the Code 9 Foundation: a charitable foundation providing support for current and veteran professional first responders and Triple Zero operators who live with mental health conditions that often result from their service to the community.
Mark says the Code 9 Foundation was born out of tragedy: that first responders often bear the brunt of traumatic scenes and aren’t fully equipped to handle the aftermath.
“There are so many veterans out there that gave their life to the job, this service to the community,” he says.
“They’ve seen some horrific things, done some awesome things, helped so many people…and now they’re sitting at home with their lives broken because they’re weighed down with mental health conditions they sustained from the job.”
“I mean, that to me is tragic.”
Named after the radio code police use for ‘police requiring urgent assistance’, Code 9 aims to create a safe space for first responders to support each other through their experiences with mental health conditions; the most common being post-traumatic stress.
“There’s some that don’t realise how much of an impact an event had on them until years later, when some other event triggers a memory, and all of a sudden it’s got this massive power over them,” Mark says.
“What’s good is that mental health is becoming more and more spoken about and more now,” Mark says, “but when I look at our veteran community, [mental health] wasn’t spoken about in our time.”
The foundation began as a Facebook page and was only initially set up by Mark to tell people when and where its peer support groups would meet, but quickly grew to almost 3,000 members; with around 70% of those made up of police.
Mark says the “willingness of members to help others” is what makes being a part of Code 9 so supportive; that first-responders are naturally inclined to help others is invaluable to the organisation.
“Just seeing how other members jump in to help is incredible,” he says, “seeing everyone piling in with so much care and support.
Whether you’re a cop, a firie, a paramedic or a triple 000 operator, you joined the job to help people. Because that’s what we do.”
Visit the Code 9 Foundation here.
If you are struggling and have suicidal thoughts, please know you are not alone and help is available. Please contact any one of the following organisations:
Suicide Crisis Text Line – 0477 13 11 14
For those who feel more comfortable with texting rather than talking to someone. Confidential one-to-one text with a trained Lifeline Crisis Supporter