APS eXchange - Issue 2
Welcome to the second issue of our quarterly newsletter, APS eXchange.
The APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit (the Unit) continues to support agencies to uplift the mental health and suicide prevention capability of the APS workforce.
In line with the Government’s priority and commitment to suicide prevention and building a suicide prevention culture, we are excited to announce the release of Compassionate Foundations. Compassionate Foundations is a six module eLearning suite designed to provide staff at all levels across the service with foundational suicide prevention training and skills development. The suite has been informed by people with lived experience of psychological and suicidal distress, and we share insights from two public servants who volunteered their time and experience. The message is clear – everyone in the APS has a role to play in suicide prevention.
In our skills-development article, Look, Listen and Link: Three simple steps to support someone in distress we explore key psychological first aid skills developed to guide conversations on wellbeing and coping skills following an emotionally impactful event.
Unit Senior Clinical Psychologist, Connie Galati, reflects on the challenges and rewards of her time as a ‘frontline’ psychologist, working during the pandemic providing support to clients returning to Australia during uncertain times
We work closely with industry leaders, including Suicide Prevention Australia, the national peak body for the suicide prevention sector. Their recent report Gambling and Suicide Prevention: A roadmap for change highlights that problem gambling can heighten two key risk factors for suicide – financial hardship and relationship breakdown.
APS eXchange is committed to showcasing best practise across the service. Our ongoing work with agencies of all sizes affirms that size is no barrier to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. First, we speak with a small agency, the National Film and Sound Archive, who are working strategically during the pandemic to support the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce.
The Department of Home Affairs, has a large and diverse workforce. They share their success building a strong, dedicated Peer Support Officer network.
We love feedback! Get in touch MHSP@apsc.gov.au
This issue contains articles that may be confronting or emotionally impactful for readers. If at any time you need support, you can contact:
Your agency’s Employee Assistance Program
24 hours, 7 days a week
13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au
24 hours, 7 days a week
Beyond Blue Support Service
1300 224 636 or www.beyondblue.org.au
24 hours, 7 days a week
Compassion. Connection. Understanding: Building a suicide prevention culture in the APS
The impacts of suicide and suicidal behaviour are far-reaching. In Australia on average every year:
- Nine people will die by suicide every day.
- Over 400,000 people are impacted by suicide.
- 65,000 people will attempt suicide (National Suicide Prevention Adviser, 2020).
 National Suicide Prevention Adviser (December, 2020). Connected and Compassionate: Implementing a national whole of government approach to suicide prevention (Final Advice). Canberra.
Suicide prevention is a key priority for the Australian Government and has been recognised as requiring a whole-of-government approach. In response to recommendations arising from the National Suicide Prevention Adviser’s Final Advice, the Australian Public Service Commission, through the recently established APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit (the Unit) is contributing to a whole-of-service approach to building the suicide prevention capability of the APS.
As part of this approach, Compassionate Foundations, a new skills-led suicide prevention capability suite has been developed specifically for the APS. The Unit is working closely with agencies across the service to ensure an effective roll out of the suite to their workforces.
Rachael McMahon, Principal Psychologist and Director of the Unit, said, “The APS is on the cusp of an important cultural shift. Compassionate Foundations supports whole-of-service efforts to develop and firmly embrace a suicide prevention culture across the workforce.”
“Compassionate Foundations acknowledges the strong independency of organisational enablers, staff knowledge and staff skills in supporting changes in suicide prevention practice and building a suicide-aware organisational culture,” Rachael said.
The six module eLearning suite has been through an extensive consultation process and was endorsed by a secondary review panel with lived experience, human resources and academic expertise and representation from Suicide Prevention Australia as the peak industry body.
Connie Galati, Senior Clinical Psychologist, said a key point of difference that sets Compassionate Foundations apart from other suicide prevention intervention approaches is that instead of focusing on risk assessment, it focuses on the relationship between people.
“Compassionate Foundations is based on contemporary upstream suicide prevention approaches. The suite equips staff to recognise and respond compassionately to signs of early distress, rather than waiting until a person is acutely distressed or suicidal,” Connie said.
“Traditionally, suicide prevention capability training for the public sector has focused at the point of suicidal distress with intervention sitting purely in the health field. Contemporary suicide prevention, which has been driven by people with lived experience of suicidal distress and suicidal bereavement, suggests that we need to move away from this old way of thinking. Rather, we need to consider how all of us, as members of a community, can intervene early, before suicidal distress occurs.”
Compassionate Foundations takes a positive, human-to-human approach to interactions that promote connection and understanding. It is designed to complement, not replace, an agency’s longer-form suicide intervention training.
Rachael acknowledges that although suicide can be a distressing and challenging topic, “For agencies to be truly suicide aware, we must normalise conversations about suicide prevention. The APSC is committed to linking agencies to resources, supports and opportunities to share and connect, and to helping to light the path ahead for the APS to build a suicide prevention culture that equips it to serve our Australian community.”
Modules are interactive, providing staff with theory, real-world scenarios, micro-skills development and the opportunity to evaluate their knowledge. After completing all six modules, staff will have an increased awareness of the needs of people in vulnerable situations, understand why people may become distressed and know how to have a helpful and safe conversation with someone who may be showing early signs of distress.
The approach emphasises that building suicide prevention capability within the APS will require staff to have an understanding of a range of concepts and theories, including concepts not traditionally associated with suicide prevention, such as trauma-informed engagement, culture as healing and supporting people in early distress.
The suite provides staff at all levels with the opportunity to develop key psychological first aid skills that can positively impact on others, and save a life (see article on Look, Listen and Link skills in this Issue).
Connie said adopting a trauma-informed approach is key to this suite being suitable for the service-as-a-whole, as it serves the Australian community. Key learning outcomes include understanding the prevalence of trauma in the community, understanding how organisational policies and procedures act as an enabler of good suicide prevention practice, and understanding how traumatic experiences impact emotional responding, trust and connection with services.
“Being trauma-informed requires us as individuals to be able to compassionately respond to the needs of people. The context in which we work is also key; a whole-of-agency approach ensures our policies, procedures, and work practices all reflect a trauma-informed approach, which in turn better protects ourselves, our colleagues, and the people we work with,” Connie said.
“As staff work through the six modules, not only are they able to understand and apply compassion-based suicide prevention principles in their day-to-day work, they are essentially acknowledging that every single person in our APS has the opportunity to positively impact on someone who may be at risk of experiencing distress, and potentially, save a life.”
All participants in the suite’s gold testing pilot agreed that Compassionate Foundations had been valuable in building their capability in suicide prevention. Participant feedback on the suite included:
“This is a fantastic module and I feel better equipped to deal with staff in distress, and will keep these skills on hand for the future in both my professional and personal life.”
“This training is invaluable for all APS staff. It provides clear, concise information with practical examples. I believe the training will be a valuable resource for all staff, from new starters, to experienced allied health professionals.”
Compassionate Foundations has been developed by and for the Australian Public Service. As Rachael outlines, “Suicide prevention is not solely the work of health practitioners or APS staff working in frontline areas, we all need to be part of a wave of change. This includes staff at all levels across the APS - whether you’re a policy officer, in IT or finance, and more broadly everyone in our society.”
For more information on Compassionate Foundations please email MHSP@apsc.gov.au
Living wisdom: Personal stories offer hope, promote understanding
Richard Volker, Department of Social Services
RV: “A combination of life events, isolated work environments and being on the autism spectrum, has meant there have been times when my mental health has been poor, and I have experienced suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviours.
Working in the APS for almost three decades demonstrates that I have a solid level of resilience, and that overall, the APS offers a supportive work environment.
The empathy of my wife and family, managers, colleagues, health professionals and APS support systems have supported me to re-enter my ‘window of tolerance’.
I personally wanted to contribute to the development of Compassionate Foundation as my wife’s late-husband and my step-daughters’ father died by suicide.
The statistic that over 100 people are affected by each suicide doesn’t fully capture the devastating toll it takes on those at the epicentre of the person’s life. To lose a parent to suicide when you are only four and eight years of age means every time a teacher, a news presenter, a TV show or movie mentions ‘suicide’ that desolate feeling re-manifests.
The training modules provides tools, case studies and checklists for intervention and prevention. You may also feel the training is valuable in identifying support for yourself. “
Dr Catriona Bruce, IP Australia
CB: “I live with major depression and a form of bipolar. I’ve had this my whole life, and I’ve been fairly stable over the last couple of years with medication and some useful talking therapy.
I first got involved in sharing my lived experience by talking to other people. If I can say ‘I went through [x]’, that’s a shortcut to a shared understanding. This can be a relief because mental illness can be really isolating. In addition to a deeper human connection, sharing can encourage others to reach out for support, and can also help people better understand mental illness.
So that’s why I got involved with Compassionate Foundations, to help others in a practical way by sharing my experience.
I’m really happy to have contributed to the APSC’s development of Compassionate Foundations, and to be part of building a suicide prevention culture in my APS. I am most excited about the content focused on all types of relationships, and that this suicide prevention eLearning suite is underpinned by an inclusion and diversity focus. I learnt a lot from the other lived experience participants and the experts.
It’s brilliant that all staff across the APS have access to training that promotes human connection and understanding. This is a mature approach to building the capability of the APS, and one that recognises people as human, warts and all.”
Look, Listen and Link: Three simple steps to support someone in distress
By Connie Galati, Senior Clinical Psychologist, APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit
What is psychological first aid?
Psychological first aid offers emotional and practical support to people experiencing acute distress due to a recent event. It is a ‘humane, supportive response to a fellow human being who is suffering and may need support’ (WHO, 2011, p.3). This approach has been validated across cultures and is widely used nationally and internationally, particularly in response to disasters, emergencies, accidents or conflict.
What type of support does psychological first aid offer?
Psychological first aid takes a strengths-based and compassionate approach, which recognises that most people will recover well on their own with the support of friends, family and colleagues. The purpose of psychological first aid is to enable this recovery through a human-to-human connection. This is done by acknowledging that reactions following an emotionally impactful event are natural, common and often help people adapt in the short-term.
Psychological first aid is not content-specific. It can be used regardless of the event, the type of reaction or the intensity of the reaction. The function of psychological first aid is to relieve initial distress and, if required, support someone to access other support services.
What are the Look, Listen and Link action skills?
Look, Listen and Link are the three simple steps you can take to actively support someone in distress. This involves:
providing basic care and comfort to people
actively listening while not pressuring people to talk or being intrusive
addressing people’s needs and concerns, and
helping people to connect to information, services and social supports.
These steps help to make people feel safe, connected with others, calm and more hopeful. This in turn leads people to feel more able to help themselves.
More information on psychological first aid is available in Practice Considerations: Emotionally impactful events. This guide has been produced by the APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit to support APS agencies to develop in-house procedures to prepare for and respond to staff following an emotionally impactful event.
Psychological first aid is one of many skill-development opportunities available through the Compassionate Foundations eLearning suite to support you to provide a trauma-informed, connected and compassionate approach to people in distress.
Because people matter: Department of Home Affairs Peer Support Program
Provided by the Department of Home Affairs
The Department of Home Affairs has trained a network of Peer Support Officers (PSO) to provide their colleagues with confidential help for work-related and personal struggles. This program was a component of our organisational Mental Health Plan 2020, and has now been incorporated into our Healthy Us strategy.
Commencing in 2016 with 26 PSOs, impressively, the network is now around 110 PSO strong. Diversity and inclusion are a priority for our network, and PSOs represent diversity in gender, job roles, APS/EL levels, organisational and geographical areas for approximately 15,000 total staff. However, we know we need to grow this capability that sits at the coal face of earliest intervention.
Lynne, one of our PSOs said, “I became a PSO because people matter to me. I’m passionate about supporting people who may be having a difficult time. I consider it a great privilege that people trust me with how they're really feeling and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to be able to provide help and support. As a PSO, I provide a listening ear to allow people to work through issues and help them arrive to their own conclusions.”
Peer support training
All our PSOs undergo an intensive training course to equip them with skills to help colleagues whilst protecting confidentiality. PSO training includes active listening, psychological first aid and referral options - and we also plan to incorporate the Compassionate Foundations suicide prevention eLearning suite.
We support our PSOs with regular phone or face-to-face contact from the PSO support team, access to our EAP counsellors, regular teleconference or videoconference meetings with peers across the network, and ongoing training, support and review.
Home Affairs supports our network of professional PSOs to follow best practice guidelines as set down by Phoenix Australia (formerly the Centre for Post-Traumatic Stress). We are now implementing Practice considerations: Workplace peer support programs.
Vision for the PSO network
Our program is developing a ‘specialist’ PSO capability. All PSOs will be encouraged to train in a specialist subject of interest which will be recorded on the intranet. Specialisations could include diversity groups (genders, culturally and linguistically diverse, disability, indigenous), staff on or returning from postings, and even new parents. Specialist PSOs would continue to support all staff, but staff could identify specialist PSOs that suit their specific situation to contact. This will also allow PSOs with lived or living experience of health or wellbeing issues to provide their experience alongside clinicians with the relevant skill sets to ensure their support to staff is clinically underpinned.
Our department recognises our current complex world is not a passing phase or a temporary state of affairs, and our PSO network are in an important position to support the overall wellbeing of their colleagues.
The PSO program is a great benefit to the department, providing over 100 staff with the skills to support their colleagues, and provide referral where more substantial support is needed. PSOs are one part of our front line support, both formally and informally, contributing to the wellbeing of our organisation, and to our progress towards our vision of a ‘Healthy Us’ - ensuring we are future ready.
 Galati, C., Mayberry, A., & McMahon, R. (2021). Practice considerations: Workplace peer support programs. APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit, Australian Public Service Commission, Commonwealth of Australia.
Reflections from a psychologist on the frontline
Prior to joining the APS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit as a Senior Clinical Psychologist, Connie Galati worked for the ACT Government, most recently in the COVID-19 Response Branch where she oversaw the Territory’s COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing program.
Connie candidly shared insights into the reality of working on the frontline during a global pandemic, where each day brought new challenges, and the pressures faced by Australians meant lives were on the line.
CG: “I’ve spent most of my career as a clinical psychologist working across hospitals and community health centres. However, I never imagined a time where I would spend each and every working day providing psychological support while ‘kitted-up’ in PPE (personal protective equipment).
Working during the pandemic, I recall waiting for a flight from Singapore to arrive. Australians from all over the world were returning home via Canberra. We knew their journey even before they had boarded the plane had been long, and that the public health requirements would be overwhelming after a long flight. Alongside our public health and Australian Border Force colleagues, our job as counsellors, psychologists and social workers was to provide reassurance, information and some predictability about what would happen that evening and over the next 14 days.
As Australians disembarked the plane, they were overwhelmed. We approached them saying ‘welcome home’ – some started tearing up at that. Some others got a fright with all of us wearing PPE, they had not expected such protocols. We quickly reassured them they were safe.
In addition to our role providing basic information, we identified individuals and groups to be prioritised for interview, these included groups with children, older adults, disabilities and vulnerabilities.
A small group shared they had some health needs and we provided them with guidance on how these needs could be met while in quarantine and made offers to follow up the next day.
Providing psychological support while wearing PPE requires adapting the usual approaches to interpersonal communication.
Non-verbal gestures and cues, like a gentle smile, are no longer available to emphasise key information or communicate and provide reassurance. I found myself raising my eyebrows and using my hands a lot!
One older gentleman wanted to hold my hand. Under normal circumstances, holding someone’s hand would be a simple yet powerful gesture to communicate empathy and support.
The mental, and physical fatigue, of the circumstances were very real.
I had to be acutely aware of even the slightest physical interaction from a passenger, such as someone touching my hand or arm, and then doff and don new gloves before moving to speak to the next passenger.
As we said goodbye to the last passengers, one man came up to us and thanked us for being there and making them feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. It was midnight and time to doff our PPE and go home to our own families.
This was just one of many opportunities I had to support people as part of the ACT’s COVID-19 response. However it highlights to me exactly what was at stake- the opportunity to connect as a human and support someone through challenging circumstances.”
It’s time to shine a light on gambling-related suicides
Provided by Suicide Prevention Australia
Suicide is complex, multifactorial human behaviour with many varied risk factors. As an organisation whose vision is a world without suicide, we do a lot of work thinking about these risk factors and what can be done to address them.
The evidence is clear that social determinants of health and wellbeing, including social, economic and physical environments, play a critical role in suicide rates. What we do in our health system is key, however as only half of those who tragically lose their life to suicide each year access mental health services at the time, there’s much we need to do beyond just the health system.
Acknowledging suicide prevention is a key priority for government, and for Australian society, we are strong supporters of the APS Mental Health Capability Framework, and whole-of-APS efforts to build a suicide prevention culture. If we can build suicide prevention capability in a 250,000 strong public service, we can support APS staff who interact with vulnerable people each day to identify and support those at-risk.
It’s also why we work with experts across sectors to understand those factors that contribute to suicide and how we can best intervene. We’ve partnered with Financial Counselling Australia to look at gambling-related suicides, including a roundtable comprising those with lived experience, clinicians, service providers and researchers and sector leaders.
We know that problem gambling can heighten two key risk factors for suicide which are financial hardship and relationship breakdown. We also know that protective factors for suicide, such as social support, physical health and employment can be compromised by problem gambling.
More research is needed but NSW data suggests of those who seek help for gambling problems, as many as 11 percent attempt suicide. Other studies found almost one in five people presenting with suicidality also experience problems with their gambling. More broadly, we know gambling-related suicides are under-reported and not getting the policy attention they deserve.
We’ve released Gambling and Suicide Prevention: A roadmap for change which outlines key opportunities for action. These range from increased efforts to identify and record gambling-related suicides to steps that banks, gambling providers and regulators can take to reduce gambling harm. The report calls for improved treatment facilities, training for helpline operators and community awareness of the tools already available.
Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy. More needs to be done now to prevent suicides related to gambling and the financial stress. Governments, service providers, industry and the community all have a role to play in suicide prevention.
Read the report here.
Matthew McLean is the Director of Policy and Government Relations at Suicide Prevention Australia, the national peak body for suicide prevention. With over 400 members, including service providers, researchers, clinicians and those with lived experience, we’ve served the suicide prevention sector for almost 30 years.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Gambling Helpline: 1800 858 858
National Debt Helpline: 1800 007 007
Small agency, big impact: Building a mentally healthy workplace
Provided by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
From the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and employees working from home and isolated from their physical networks, there has never been a more important time to focus on mental health. At the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), we quickly adapted to the challenges at hand, building our capabilities to suit the needs of our staff.
Over the past two years, our People & Culture team has rolled out a suite of additional mental health initiatives and fit-for-purpose resources. This includes online sessions to build mental resilience, by supporting staff to evaluate their own mental health, develop self-care strategies, recognise the warning signs of chronic stress, and support our brains to adapt to challenges. To improve general wellbeing, well-attended online meditation classes were led by a wellbeing and mindfulness coach.
With staff working from home, we also took the approach of coming together through entertainment. Virtual games and trivia nights connected staff across our Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne offices, receiving high-attendance and positive feedback.
There was a push for People & Culture to directly reach out to individuals, making sure they were okay. The NFSA is now looking at maintaining some of the ‘lockdown’ programs implemented, given their success and clear support from staff.
However, our organisational focus on mental health precedes the pandemic response. We have been working hard to build a positive workplace culture and provide ongoing support to staff, implementing strategies to create a safe work environment, ensuring psychological risks are monitored, reported, and managed across the agency. A key strategy is our Employee Assistance Program, ensuring staff have access to support and counselling for a broad range of personal and work-related issues, as well as assistance, tools and coaching in the areas of dealing with conflict, career development, nutrition and lifestyle, financial counselling, and expert legal support.
We could list off the various initiatives we offer to support employees, whether it be free health checks, vaccinations, Mental Health First Aid courses, events to elevate ‘RU OK? Day’ and Mental Health Month, or programs through our Diversity and Inclusion Network, but when it comes down to creating a positive culture, any HR team – and management – needs to be approachable, understanding, caring, and ready to help. We need to be here to listen.
We have also worked extremely hard to build literacy across the agency to assist in raising awareness and changing attitudes towards mental health.
All of these initiatives contribute to building a culture of suicide prevention, by empowering individuals with the tools and knowledge to evaluate their mental health and get help, and creating safe spaces where staff can talk honestly about how they are feeling.
But there is always work to do. We are currently establishing our APS Mental Health Framework, which we believe will further build mental health capability in the organisation. We are committed to creating a healthy, safe and positive work environment, to ensure our staff thrive and feel supported in the workplace. Irrespective of size or resources, every agency has a responsibility to improve their efforts in mental health capability – efforts that can contribute to suicide prevention, and also contribute to a healthier society.