Mental Health Research News

AFP commander and champion strongman Grant Edwards goes public with his PTSD battle - 23/08/2017 :: 23/09/2017

 Date: 21st August 2017

Source: ABC News

Commander Grant Edwards, one of Australia's most senior Federal Police officers, has been at the front line of often dangerous and disturbing investigations and wants to speak out about the toll policing takes on some of its members.

In the early days of the internet, Commander Edwards was part of an international team charged with investigating child exploitation and trafficking. The sheer volume of the material shocked him.

To shield his younger officers, Commander Edwards would insist on watching the worst of it. What he did not factor in was the psychological toll of that exposure, as many of those images would be burnt into his brain forever.

 ''We see the worst of society and the worst of life, and sometimes people don't understand the impacts that has," he said.

In uniform

Commander Grant Edwards, one of Australia's most senior Federal Police officers, has been at the front line of often dangerous and disturbing investigations and wants to speak out about the toll policing takes on some of its members.

In the early days of the internet, Commander Edwards was part of an international team charged with investigating child exploitation and trafficking. The sheer volume of the material shocked him.

To shield his younger officers, Commander Edwards would insist on watching the worst of it. What he did not factor in was the psychological toll of that exposure, as many of those images would be burnt into his brain forever.

 ''We see the worst of society and the worst of life, and sometimes people don't understand the impacts that has," he said.

Commander Edwards admits that when he joined the AFP, mental health injuries were the elephant in the room.

"If anybody had an issue it was usually dealt with by copious amounts of alcohol and a meal, and next day you've forgotten it through the haze of a hangover," he said.

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin is the first to admit that mental health in the organisation has taken a back seat.

"You didn't talk about your weaknesses, you didn't talk about your vulnerabilities, because that was a sign you weren't doing your job, you weren't strong enough or cut out to be a police officer," Commissioner Colvin said.

Policing pressures

As a boy, Commander Edwards was bullied for being overweight and built up his strength to compensate.

"I used to watch the old Wide World of Sports in the late 70s, they had the strong man contests on there and I said to myself, 'I'd love to do that one day'," he said.

Do that he did — in 1999 he was awarded the title of Australia's strongest man.

With just his bare hands and brute strength he pulled a 201-tonne locomotive into the Guinness Book of Records. Over the years, he has also moved military aircraft, semitrailers and trams.

But he was to discover brute strength only counts for so much.

"I was a strong guy physically, I thought I was a strong guy mentally and it was probably the greatest wake-up in my life when I realised that for once I wasn't," he said.

After a highly charged year training police in Afghanistan, his health began to unravel. Medical specialists could not pinpoint the problem, and he began to withdraw from his family. Barely coping at work, he turned to alcohol and painkillers.

By 2014, Commander Edwards was supervising Queensland airport security for the G20, arguably one of the biggest policing operations in Australia's history. The pressure of protecting the world's leaders on home soil was immense.

To add to the strain, he had a voice in his head telling him he would be better off dead. Driving to work, he would imagine ending his life — then he would torture himself for his perceived cowardice.

"I'd say to myself, 'Are you that weak you can't even end it?'"

His GP was the first to suggest he may have post traumatic stress disorder.

"I heard those four letters, PTSD, and I'm thinking, 'That's my life's gone, my job's gone, I'm going to be cast as a crazy person'," he said.

In denial, he refused the offer of treatment. To go on medication might mean his weapon and security clearances would be removed. In his mind, the protectors were supposed to be infallible.

"We look back through how police and the AFP have dealt with mental illness or PTSD in the past and we've tended to stigmatise it," Commissioner Colvin said.

"What it's done is create an environment where people aren't sure about coming forward."

It would take a breakdown before Commander Edwards recognised he was wounded in ways not seen by the naked eye. Years of being the strongman had finally caught up with him.

Edwards' warm response from AFP not always the case

Commander Edwards was surprised at the acceptance and help he received from his superiors, but not every outcome was so positive.

In February this year, an officer took her own life in the Melbourne headquarters of the AFP. The incident led to a flood of complaints from disgruntled former and serving members.

"When someone does put their hand up and says, 'I'm unwell', until very recently they have been made non-operational or moved to a different area," Angela Smith of the AFP Association said.

"Because you've now become a broken biscuit. You're treated as though you've got some sort of communicable disease."

Most of the AFP's psychological support was centralised in Canberra and officers from the regions would have to phone in for support. As part of a raft of mental health reforms, a network of welfare officers has been pushed out to the regions where officers are stationed.

"Cops want to talk to cops, unsworn want to talk to unsworn. You just want to talk to someone who you think is going to understand you and identify with the issue that you're going through," Ms Smith said.

The AFP has also set up a mental health board to further work on their approach. It is part of a wider sea change sweeping through defence and first responder organisations.

"We haven't always done it well in the past," Commissioner Colvin said.

"We need to remove the stigmas, we need to make it OK for a police officer to put their hand up and say, 'I might need a break' or, 'I might need a little bit of help'."

Talking about PTSD 'not a career-killer'

Grant Edwards is now commander of the Americas based in Washington DC, responsible for Australia's police presence from Alaska down to South America.

Despite that workload, he is leading the charge for change within the AFP and internationally. He is still recovering and on medication but, more importantly, he understands now that admitting your vulnerabilities can make you a stronger man.

"You can move a 14-tonne truck but you can be exceptionally weak in the psychological sense, and it's OK to say that," Commander Edwards said.

"It's not to be embarrassed, it's not a career-ender, it's not a life-ender.

"You're stronger by coming out and dealing with your issues."

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 Reference;

”AFP commander and champion strongman Grant Edwards goes public with his PTSD battle”, ABC NEWS, 21st August 2017. < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-21/afp-strongman-grant-edwards-opens-up-about-ptsd-battle/8811844