The widow of a country policeman who took his own life two years ago will receive compensation after taking legal action against Victoria Police and reaching a settlement.
Wendy McNish said the settlement with Victoria Police would allow her to reflect and move on from her husband’s death in 2016.
Ms McNish said the outcome meant that Victoria Police had accepted Ray McNish’s death was work-related despite previously stating the settlement included a denial of liability.
It has been a lengthy fight for Ms McNish who had her initial application for compensation rejected.
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“It’s been a long emotional haul and it’s been a difficult time,” she said.
“But just to move forward and put Ray to rest and be able to move forward with my life is going to be huge.”
‘A good country cop’
Mr McNish worked at the Echuca Police Station in northern Victoria and won several accolades for his service with Victoria Police.
“He was one of those really good country cops,” Ms McNish said.
Policing was his third career after completing a farming apprenticeship and working as a truck driver.
Ms McNish said the ongoing trauma of the job was a factor in her husband’s death as well as a culmination of other issues.
“Sadly we have to prove that our loved ones have suicided as part of trying to escape whatever it is they have had to deal with at work,” she said.
“I knew somebody had to answer for Ray’s death.”
Wendy McNish has used her horse as therapy to cope following her husband’s death. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Changing the culture
Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt said he was aware of one other police officer’s suicide.
Mr Gatt said it was important to talk to police officers in country communities about the challenges they face.
“We know in regional Victoria they are isolated. We know they suffer intense workloads and burnouts is a prevalent situation for them,” he said.
Mr Gatt said Victoria Police was very focused on improving its response to mental health.
“The intervention, the lead-up to someone being injured, [and] preventing somebody from being injured, is so much more important,” he said.
“Changing the culture around putting your hand up [for help], seeking assistance and … ensuring that any assistance they need is actually there.”
The Police Association of Victoria recently walked over 1,000 kilometres during the Head-to-Head trek through regional Victoria to raise awareness about trauma.
Mr Gatt credited Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton for being open about his own personal struggles.
Mr Ashton took time off at the end of last year to deal with fatigue.
“When you have leaders of organisations standing up and saying, ‘We have ensured it is okay to come forward’, and by leading with that example, it sends a very strong message within the workforce,” Mr Gatt said.
The Victorian Government has been trialling changes to Workcover to offer provisional payments to emergency workers affected by mental injuries.
Increasing Federal support
The Police Association of Victoria has also been pushing for the Federal Government to offer former police members the same support as war veterans receive.
“They are out there suffering in silence. We don’t think that is sustainable, we don’t think that’s okay,” Mr Gatt said.
“We need to engage with the Federal Government to make sure police across Australia receive the same commitment from them [the Government] in their retirement that they [police] are giving the community during their years of service.”
A recent Beyond Blue study into emergency service workers also reported a higher rate of mental health diagnoses compared to Australian adults.
The results also showed three in four employees who made a claim for psychological injury found the current compensation process detrimental to their recovery.
That was the experience of Narelle Fraser, a former police detective, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2012.
Narelle Fraser is a former Detective Senior Constable and left the police after developing PTSD. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
“I loved my job. I felt I was reasonably well-regarded and respected,” Ms Fraser said.
Ms Fraser eventually left the force suffering from PTSD that was triggered by exposure to child pornography videos that had left her struggling to cope.
Ms Fraser said she had the strength to navigate the mental health system but had to relive her trauma while having to prove that she had PTSD.
“I never had to fight the force as such, but what I had to fight was Workcover,” she said.
Wall of Remembrance
Senior Constable Ray McNish spent almost 12 years as a police officer. (Supplied: Wendy McNish)
Ms McNish will now be campaigning to have her husband’s name included on a Wall of Remembrance in Melbourne and another wall in Canberra that pays tribute to police.
“That would be the icing on the cake — to see his name on the wall,” Ms McNish said.
Ms McNish also wants members of the police force to feel comfortable enough to come forward to seek help without fear of retribution.
She has also been calling for ongoing mental health checks for police officers throughout their careers.
“It’s no good being physically fit if you’re not mentally fit. They’ve got to assess each and every police officer out there,” Ms McNish said.
“When you go into the academy you have to pass a psych test so they have that foundation there … when somebody first goes into the police force.
“That just makes sense to me — that [psychological testing] would be ongoing and that it is checked at a regular basis.”