The number of Bay of Plenty police officers seeking professional help due to trauma on the job has almost tripled within a year.

In a regional breakdown of New Zealand Police counselling referral rates, a total of 200 Bay officers were referred to counselling for work-related matters in 2018, compared to 68 in 2017. These figures included repeated sessions of single officers and sessions not attended. They also follow similar figures involving firefighters seeking help.

The police figures released to NZME under the Official Information Act, revealed up to 74 Western Bay officers sought help last year. In 2017, 24 officers were referred.

The increase was mirrored in the wider Bay of Plenty also, with 77 officers in the Eastern Bay seeking counselling in 2018, compared to 27 in 2017. In Rotorua, 49 officers sought help in the past year, compared to 17 in 2017.

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New Zealand Police Association regional director Scott Thompson said although there had been a notable culture shift towards mental wellbeing, both in society and within the police force, there remained a reluctance among some officers to ask for help.

"There's still staff out there who go home and cry - they see some pretty shitty stuff and feel that no one cares," Thompson said.

"Cops solve problems, they don't want to be problems. For them to say 'I need help', it's not really a done thing."

Many officers enjoyed the variety of work policing offered but it was important each officer knew their limitations, Thompson said.

"Over the years there have been people who shouldn't have gone [left the job] but they did," he said.

"We might put on a blue uniform and have our police ID but it doesn't make you inhuman. You are not superhuman, you hurt just like everyone else does."

In 2018, wellbeing Benestar Group employee assistance programmes in the Bay of Plenty showed a 21 per cent increase in use compared to 2017.

There's still staff out there who go home and cry - they see some pretty shitty stuff and feel that no one cares.

New Zealand general manager Julie Cressey said more businesses were seeking help for reasons including changes to health and safety legislation and increased numbers of people killing themselves.

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A global increase in depression prompted the World Health Organisation to last year class it as the leading cause of disability worldwide.

In New Zealand, a Government inquiry into mental health and addiction found one in five Kiwis experience mental illness or significant mental distress, with increasing numbers of children suffering and self-harming.

The inquiry also reported that New Zealand's 2017/18 suicide rate was the highest since 1999, with 525 people ending their life by suicide and another 20,000 attempting to do so.

Cressey said there was now greater acceptance that it was "Okay to not be okay" and if asking for help was viewed more positively rather than as a weakness, more employees would reach out for help when they need it.

Western Bay police area commander Inspector Clifford Paxton said police recognised the unique and often traumatic nature of their work "and therefore the need to keep our people feeling emotionally well-supported and able to do their jobs well".

Paxton said the culture shift regarding mental wellbeing also meant the increased number of officers seeking help was not exclusive to an increase in traumatic events, but included the heightened awareness and willingness of officers to receive appropriate support if needed.

Superintendent Mel Aitken said police counselling figures for 2016 and earlier were not available due to a migration of data from an older system. Aitken was also unable to respond to queries about how much time was taken by each officer and when or if they returned to frontline duties because this information "does not exist".

On the frontline for the frontline

Barter Barber Sam Dowdall says there is still some way to go to improve the support the mental well being of first responders like police officers. Photo / file
Barter Barber Sam Dowdall says there is still some way to go to improve the support the mental well being of first responders like police officers. Photo / file

Tauranga-based Barter Barber Sam Dowdall has been invited to offer his services at two police districts.

It was something he hoped to do after spending time helping people in Christchurch, following March 15's tragedy.

Dowdall travels New Zealand offering mental health support and encouraging men to open up in an effort to raise awareness of mental health. He said while the old police culture of "harden up, man up" had changed a lot over the years "there needs to be a bigger focus".

"It's good to congratulate ourselves but we are still ... we're not there yet."

Dowdall said he had concerns for other first responders such as rural firefighters who volunteer their services, often in a small community. He said he would like to see more support offered to all first responders and people returning from military operations.

In January, the Bay of Plenty Times reported that from January 2018 to September 30, 2018, 51 Bay of Plenty firefighters were referred to a counsellor or psychologist. In previous years, firefighters were referred 11 times in 2015, five times in 2014. There were no referrals in 2013.

Firefighters said at the time there had been an increase in traumatic crashes and since the merging of volunteer and paid firefighters on July 1, 2017, independent counselling was made available to all personnel and their families.


Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/barterbarber
7bull; On Facebook: The Barter Barber

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.