Retired police officer Rob Atkins used to reach for Valium to help him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Mental health charities are concerned summer’s bushfires will create a new wave of PTSD among first responders
- Assistance dogs are being trained to help emergency workers who may struggle to cope
- Assistance dogs have already been used with good outcomes by Ambulance Victoria
Then he met Jimmy, an assistance dog specially trained to help first responders cope.
“When Jimmy came along, that’s when I basically stopped taking benzos,” he told 7.30.
“He’s my Valium.”
Now he is concerned for emergency workers who battled the unprecedented blazes during the summer.
“First responders will be affected by these bushfires, absolutely,” he said.
Mr Atkins had been in Victoria Police for 24 years, attending a huge number of gruesome crime scenes, and had been one of the first officers at the scene of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.
What he saw left its mark.
“The whole scene of destruction. It was pretty fresh. It was the next day and it was pretty full-on,” the 49-year-old said.
After years of being exposed to trauma on the job, the cracks started to appear.
“At work I would be really angry, extremely angry, all the time,” he said.
“To maintain calmness on the outside, I was working so hard.
“Unfortunately, eating handfuls of Valium all day means you can’t drive a car, means that you’re half-stoned and you’re not present with your family. You’re just sitting on the couch.”
Mr Atkins wanted to try a different approach to treat the disorder.
He applied through Assistance Dogs Australia for a support dog and was introduced to Jimmy.
For many first responders, PTSD is a reality of the job.
Following the recent horrific bushfire season, those who work on the frontline are concerned a fresh wave of trauma will leave many in its wake.
“This current round of bushfires that we’ve just gone through has been the final drop in the bucket for members that have been out there for 10 years — going to job after job, fatality after fatality and other bushfires,” Mr Atkins said.
He is now a member of The Code 9 Foundation, a charity that supports first responders with PTSD.
The name refers to the police radio signal for an officer in distress.
Code 9 founder, Victoria Police veteran Mark Thomas, says Mr Atkin and Jimmy’s relationship inspired the charity to sponsor an assistance dog for first responders late last year.
Mr Thomas now hopes Codey — an energetic seven-month-old Labrador pup — will end up in the home of a first responder from the recent fires.
“It’s well-documented how good dogs are for trauma,” Mr Thomas told 7.30.
“So, our hope is that Codey will go to a first responder who is suffering symptoms, and has been diagnosed, and that could well come from the current bushfires.”
One organisation that is already seeing the value in assistance dogs for bushfire first responders is Ambulance Victoria.
Its Peer Support Dog Program was established in 2018 to help with the mental health and wellbeing of paramedics.
As part of the program, handlers take trained support dogs to visit paramedics, offering a safe space for them to start a conversation about PTSD.
Jo Algie is a Peer Support Responder and has been taking her five-year-old Bernese Mountain dog Lexi to visit those affected by the bushfires.
“For the last couple of days, I’ve been going around to East Gippsland, touring all the fire-affected areas and visiting predominantly Ambulance Victoria personnel, but also other agencies as well, just to see how they’re going,” she told 7.30.
Ms Algie said many paramedics are more at ease with a dog than they are with councillors, so having a dog there creates an opportunity for them to relax and open up.
“Dogs really are a person’s best friend,” she said.
“And if someone can just have a cuddle for five minutes, it just makes all the difference to their day.
“We always see people having a big cuddle with any of the peer dogs and they get up and they say, ‘I’ll be fine now’.
“We see some rotten things in our job, and the dogs just make you feel that little bit better.”