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Working with military and emergency services, a conversation with Damien Stewart

News, Veterans, Clinical practice, Technology

Damien Stewart is a psychologist and the Convenor of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) Military and Emergency Services Psychology Interest Group.

Damien spent 20 years with the police force in Western Australia and then the Australian Federal Police in Sydney. After leaving the police, he retrained as a psychologist and is now in private practice on the Sunshine Coast.

Most of Damien’s clients are police and emergency services personnel and he’s a keen advocate for providing these workers with a support infrastructure when mental health issues arise.

Damien says while recognition of the mental health toll on this cohort is increasing, there’s a long way to go to ensure that all serving and former personnel receive timely and effective treatment. He adds that there are many similarities between emergency services and the military.

“There is a devotion to duty, the desire to be part of something bigger than yourself, and it’s not just a job – it’s an identity. You put on a uniform and it represents something. People in these jobs are often high performers with high levels of perfectionism and a huge investment in the work they do. Unfortunately, the nature of their work can lead to problems like burnout, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he says.

Damien’s approach to working with his clients is to initially “spend time with them so they get to know you a little and so they know that you understand their background and what they have done operationally. They then feel safe in the therapeutic setting and are more open to receiving help. It’s important to help them understand that having a mental health issue doesn’t need to be the end of the world – you can have a bit of time on the bench and then go on with the game.”

Damien is a big proponent of the use of digital technology in mental health, both to make treatment more accessible, and to provide additional tools for clients to use. He uses Skype to connect with clients who are unable to make a face-to-face appointment, and recommends apps, such as PTSD Coach Australia, which Phoenix Australia developed for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, that has strategies for people struggling with PTSD, as well as mindfulness and guided meditation apps.

The APS Military and Emergency Services Psychology Interest Group which began in 2014 aims to enhance the professional identity of psychologists working in military and emergency services settings, and contribute to personnel management and service delivery in military and emergency service organisations through the application of psychological knowledge and practice.

The group helps professionals working with current and previous serving military and emergency services members to connect and share information on the specific cultural, organisational and personal issues unique to delivering psychological services to military and emergency services personnel.

Damien recommends Phoenix Australia’s Centenary of Anzac Centre as a resource for psychologists and other professionals working with veterans and military personnel.

“At last, with the Anzac Centre we have a central repository for resources and expertise in veteran mental health. It’s a place to connect and discuss what we are all doing to help veterans,” he says.

“The professional development they provide for people working in this space, as well as having access to the Centre’s research-driven expertise is a wonderful resource that practitioners really shouldn’t hesitate to make use of.”