NT Police mental health failures cover-up shows cynical appropriation of RU OK? branding


EDITORIAL: Trigger warning, discussion of mental health and suicide.

The NT Police, an organization that has seen five of its people take their own lives this year, publicly dismissed their former censored and deleted the former members’ personal experiences of mental health support failures in the agency in a shocking social media bungle this week.

This is an organization whose own internal report from June found they failed to meet responsibilities around mental health.

The NT Independent exposed to a broader audience the fact the NT Police recently deleted the Facebook comments of former officers talking about what they felt are the failures of the force to support their mental health.

To do this is at the very least unethical.

The fact they chose to do it on a post prompting RU OK? Day is unfathomable.

Then they deleted the comments of an MLA offering support to these officers, as well as the Police Minister’s own comments, when she said she would investigate what was being exposed.

As we said, there have been five known suicides by current or former NT Police officers this year alone.

You could say the Facebook fiasco was just a simple mistake by some inexperienced employee in the NT Police media team, and it may have been. But in this case, it is instructive about the training they themselves must have received in dealing with conversations about mental health, and the priority it is given by NT Police.

It does not appear an act in isolation, but rather part of a culture of neglect.

It all unfolded in the same week Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker was asked on radio how he was working to improve the morale of the force. He replied that he would be looking at mental health and well-being issues, then said: “BUT EQUALLY [emphasis added] As you know, I’ve been subjected to significant campaigns, and in the social media space, and I know you’re a strong advocate for mental health Jo [Laverty],” he said.

“Now you read those comments [on social media]. That’s amounted to cyber-bullying, I think you would accept that.”

In that instant he manipulated an interviewer and attempted to reverse the narrative that he and his executive team, who have handed out huge numbers of disciplinary notices on officers for what many say are frivolous reasons, were not actually the offenders of causing mental health issues amongst the the rank and file, but rather that Mr Chalker is the victim, in this case of an online bullying campaign.

What he did is called DARVO, which is an acronym for, deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender, which is a psychological term for what people may use as a response when being pushed to accountability for their behaviour.

The Police Commissioner’s mental health is important. Not just because everybody deserves mental and emotional well being, but because he is an important leader.

This publication has worked to hold him to account for his actions and has been critical of those actions as the head of Police, Fire and Emergency Services in editorials, with some of it hard and direct criticism. But that is a critique of him in a professional capacity, which anyone who seeks high public office can expect.

For everyone in public life to some extent, this sort of public criticism could have a personal impact.

We hope the Police Commissioner would have the support and help he needs, that everyone needs.

But at the same time, he is fronting an organization full of workers who are exposed to serious and repeated trauma and he is failing them, and when asked about this, he evokes nonsense about online bullying, and tries to suggest it equates equally to the problems his members are facing.

If he is reading Facebook comments about himself, he should stop now. Reading them are never going to make anyone feel good about themselves and the world.

But if he is relying on the same systems he is providing to his members for his own mental health, he may well be out of luck.

‘Psychologically unsafe to diminish or minimise someone’s life experience’: Mental health advocate

The RU OK? Slogan is: a conversation can change a life.

“RU OK? inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with the people around them and start a conversation with those in their world who may be struggling with life,” they write.

“Use these four steps and have a conversation that could change a life: Ask RU OK?; Listen; encourage action; Check in.”

Mental health lived experience advocate Noelene Armstrong, said generally it was a psychologically unsafe thing to do to diminish or minimise someone’s life experience of mental health and thoughts of suicide.

“We need to be supporting our front-line services,” she told the NT Independent.

“We know they are at risk, and they themselves are vulnerable to mental health issues.

“It is the police who are a valuable part of our mental health response, they are the people who mostly respond to people who are in mental health crisis.”

According to former officers who commented on the post, and had their comments not only disregarded but banished from the record, NT Police have not even done the first RU OK? step with them.

Nick Carter, who has widely told his story through the media in recent months, left the force last June and has since been diagnosed with PTSD. He was one of those who had his comments deleted.

He has said NT Police have never phoned him to ask if he is okay and to tell him what services are available. He also said Commander Janelle Tonkin was interviewed by ABC radio this year in the days following his story being broadcast on the same station, and defended the police support system.

She was also one of the officers in the RU OK? day post.

“NT Police cannot even ask the question, are you okay, of their members or former members, let alone have a plan if anyone actually said no,” he said.

We are not saying this is Cmdr Tonkin’s fault. Very tellingly the ABC article where both were quoted in mid-February said Mr Chalker did not respond to a request for an on-camera interview.

The NT Police Support and Well-being Services review summary was released to members on June 3, and stated there was no defined strategy supported by performance metrics, and only limited data reporting on mental health and well-being, while also stating there was no money for “preventative and responsive” services.

It went on to show other significant failures, but couched them in bureaucratic terms as “opportunities”, that indicated failure to meet responsibilities, a lack of funding, a lack of humanity in management, failures in processes to escalate concerns about mental health, and a lack of professional development for the support and well-being team.

A lack of support for welbeing is probably as old as the police force itself, however Mr Chalker has had almost three years to do something. And while we recognise that he says some changes have been implemented, deleting comments and concerns makes it seem like they don’t even comprehend how to treat people full stop.

We have never heard someone in the police executive or a minister speak in a really human way publicly about mental health with any amount of real vulnerability, empathy or contrition.

None of them seem to understand it is not systems and processes, although they are important, fundamentally it is the culture of an organisation, the thinking of the people from the top down, it is compassion and recognition and non-judgmental listening.

We suggest they read Gabor Mate’s new book

Because there is strong evidence NT Police cannot meaningfully connect with their members in this way, let alone ask questions, listen and then help their own.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing mental health difficulties, please reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyondblue on 1300 224 636, 13YARN (a service run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) or Mensline Australia on 1300 789 978.

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