Welcome to the latest edition of the Work 'n' Care newsletter. Each month we try and bring you stories that embody all aspects of a carers life. Our aim is to empower you in your caring role and to make your life a little easier. Contact us with your experiences and ideas as the process of sharing can make a carers life just that little bit easier. Read the latest edition below or use the links on the right to navigate our story archives.

 

Carers in high demand for foster children

Across Australia, the foster care system is in a state of crisis.

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foster care child fishing

Across Australia, the care of children taken from or abandoned by alcoholic, drug-dependent and/or abusive parents, and the many who run away from home, is a system in a state of crisis.

Since 2007, according to statistics cited by the ABC, the number of children in out-of-home care in NSW has increased by almost 60 per cent, from 11,843 to 18,659. More than 11,000 of these children are aged between eight and 17. And that’s only the visible bit of the iceberg.

Many are in the care of foster parents who are also working carers – but the number of foster carers is at an all-time low.

In all states, there has been a significant decrease in the number of foster carers available, partly because the financial support system has been pruned right back – by up to one-third in some states – and partly because the failures of the system are producing children who are too difficult for even the most dedicated carers to handle.

How and why has it got to this point?

In March, a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) reported that there were 79,814 children at risk of serious harm in NSW, but only 24,114 had received the attention of a case-worker – which is less than 30 per cent.

The department received funding for 2128 case-workers, but employed only 2001. The department had a $1.9 billion allocation in the 2016-17 budget, the inquiry found, but only $319,000 was directed to child-protection early-intervention.

The chairman of the committee, Greg Donnelly (Labor), wrote in the introduction to the report: “How can it be that in 2017, in a country as fortunate as Australia, so many children and young people are in harm’s way every day of their lives? How and why has it got to this point?”

The committee recommended an urgent injection of funding for “evidence-based protection and early intervention services.”

The NSW budget in June followed the committee recommendation and made a $63 million injection over four years into the child-protection system. FACS will employ 42 additional front-line case-workers, an additional 66 case-work supply-workers, 23 extra workers on the Child Protection Help Line and 10 more on the Joint Investigation Response Teams.

Some parents don’t deserve to have their children

Children in need of protection will now have a better chance of getting some attention and getting it sooner. The problem remains though: where, with the number of foster carers shrinking, are the children assessed as being at risk going to go if they’re taken from their families?

FACS minister Pru Goward, said. “Child protection is difficult and now we are embarking on world-class reform which will address many of the recommendations and concerns in that report.”

The ‘world-class reforms’ are based on an American model which, according to the former FACS Minister, Brad Hazzard, had reduced the number of children in care in New York City, Illinois and Tennessee, by up to 80 per cent. The key element of the program would be that abusive parents would be given two years to reform their ways or the children would be taken from them and put up for adoption.

“Currently the focus is not on the families that need to change,” Mr Hazzard said. “Children are taken when the families fail and go into care, being moved from pillar to post often until they are 18. Sadly, all too many of them end up in juvenile justice or the correctional system.

“There are some families, some parents who are just so dangerous they don’t deserve to have children, they lose that right. Whereas others just don’t get the parenting aspect. Government agencies will work with you, but if you don’t improve in two years we’re going to have to do something.”

Epidemic of ‘ice’ use to blame

Minster Goward has confessed the system is in crisis. She said the epidemic of ‘ice’ use was partly to blame for the steep increase in the number of children in care but she was hopeful the new early-intervention program would bring numbers down.

“If we could get on top of drug addiction in parents and the violence that comes with it, then I think we could get that trajectory to change direction,” she told the ABC.

Dr Jeremy Sammutt of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney told the ABC as far back as 2013, four years ago: “We don’t do enough to remove children early enough, so they end up having really high needs, not being able to live in a normal foster home, which encourages carers to drop out because they’re so difficult to care for.

“We’re at a point now where we going to start re-residentialising the care system, with professional carers, particularly mental health professionals, to look after these kids who’ve been damaged.”

Fostering NSW has a full list of foster-care agencies on its website: http://www.fosteringnsw.com.au.

 

Death of empathy – the technology generation gap

Has social media and technology spawned a culture of indifference to the welfare of other people?

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Social Media

So many splendid channels for communication has technology and social media afforded us. But it has a most misfortunate side-effect: it spawns a culture of indifference to the welfare of other people.

This especially includes marginalised groups, such as working carers, older people, people with disability, Indigenous people, and those from a low socio-economic background.

These days, a lot of people are closer to their ‘devices’ than they are to their fellow humans.

Two tragic stories last month underscored the proliferation of this tendency.

In Sydney’s northern beaches area, in an ocean-views home on a busy Palm Beach street, an elderly couple lay dead for weeks before anyone thought to wonder why they hadn’t been sighted lately.

Teenagers film and laugh at drowning man

And in Florida, USA, a group of teenagers shot video of a man with disability who was drowning in a lake, and taunted him as he struggled and screamed for help. Then they posted the footage on Facebook.

Jamel Dunn, 31, a father of two who walked with a cane, got into difficulties in a lake in a place called Cocoa just south of Cape Canaveral and the John F. Kennedy Space Centre. A group of five kids, aged 14 to 16, saw him and started shooting video of him struggling and screaming for help and of themselves enjoying the spectacle and laughing.

They didn’t respond to his cries for help. Nor did they lodge a 911 call. Instead, they taunted Mr Dunn, telling him he was about to die. When he failed to come up the last time, one of them declared: “Oh, he just died.” Which cracked them all up. Then they posted the video and it went viral on the internet.

The body wasn’t recovered until three days later when a friend of the Dunn family saw the video and called the police.

This was happening a few miles from the site of one of technology’s greatest triumphs, the launching of the Apollo 11 mission that put men on the moon.

Have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour

Facebook figured, too, in the Palm Beach story. After the bodies of Geoffrey Iddon, 82, and his wife, Anne, 81, were discovered, the NSW Police Northern Beaches Local Command put up a post: Time to put down those iPhones and iPads … and have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour.

The cruel irony in the Iddon case is that there exists technology by which the alarm might have been raised in time to save Mrs Iddon at least, an arm of that same splendid communications technology that cast such a thrall that nobody took any interest in them for weeks on end.

The Iddons weren’t Facebook people. But they were real human beings. Mrs Iddon was blind and had very little mobility. Mr Iddon, who was apparently in good health, and worked as a volunteer, was her sole carer. They treasured their independence and insisted they needed no outside help.

It appears that Geoffrey died of natural causes some time in June. It isn’t known how long Anne lay there calling for her husband before she died of starvation and dehydration.

A technology generation gap

Superintendent Dave Darcy, who posted the Local Command’s Facebook message called on people to pay more attention to elderly people in their communities.

“I reckon they should get off their Facebook for 20 minutes and spend a bit of time with some older people and get to understand what they’re about,” he told the ABC. “Life is a team game and you need a few other people around you to make sure you’re successful sometimes.”

He points to what might be described as a technology generation gap.

“Our elderly, particularly in that 70s to 80s group, are completely left behind in terms of social media. A friend to them isn’t the click of a button. A friend to them is someone who exchanges eye-contact and genuinely cares about them.”

The Iddons, he said, were “a fiercely independent couple, life-long partners, where the husband was a very good and diligent carer for his wife. They were very resistant to help from health services and medical services.”

As recently as May 4 they had been visited by NSW Community Health officers, but said they needed no assistance.

Another police officer, Superintendent Rob Critchlow of the Hills Local Area Command, who has a focus on the protection of the elderly, said that, in a sense, the Iddons were their own victims.

“It’s a tricky one because they were pretty functional within their own limits. They weren’t being victimised by anyone. They had resources.”

He told the ABC that some experts described that kind of independence as ‘self-actualised abuse’. A failure to seek or accept assistance was “seen medically as a form of abuse but not involving a third party”.

Rob Critchlow told the ABC that there is now alarm technology of high sophistication available to carers of elderly people.

There are sensor devices that pick up movement, or the lack of it. There are GPS-type systems that track the person’s location. It is possible, Superintendent Critchlow said, to put “a virtual fence around an elderly person’s property in case they wander”.

It can be hard being the carer for an alcoholic

 

It can be a hard row, being a working carer. It’s harder still when the person who must be cared for is an alcoholic.

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AL Anon Logo

It can be a hard row, being a working carer. It’s harder still when the person who must be cared for is an alcoholic, doesn’t wish to be cared for, and spurns efforts to help.

This is the case for untold numbers of people who find themselves conscripted by the ties of love and/or family as unpaid, unthanked carers for serial alcoholics.

Caring for an alcoholic can become an all-consuming frontline struggle with the demons of addiction and, very often, with the ‘patient’ as well. This was illustrated in an anonymous posting to the ABC’s website recently in which a woman described her efforts to redeem her sister from a downwards spiral of drunkenness.

After months of rescue missions, Michelle dared to hope when Stephanie (these aren’t their real names of course) volunteered to return to the detoxification unit she’d previously escaped. Then, when she was ‘dried out’, she agreed to go into a rehabilitation centre to continue the process Michelle had embarked her upon. But after just a few hours, she walked out and disappeared.

The disastrous cycle would begin all over again. “Every time the phone rings, my heart sinks,” Michelle wrote in her ABC piece.

AL-Anon for relatives, friends and carers of alcoholics

For people in Michelle’s position there is help available. Everyone’s heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but there is also an organisation called AL-Anon for relatives, friends and carers of alcoholics.

They are realists at AL-Anon, offering no hollow reassurances.

“If she wants to drink, you can’t stop her,” Michelle was told. “She has to want to stop.”

And for certain, alcoholism is no simple matter. Addiction’s not just chemical. It’s a psychological disorder of vast complexity, frequently co-existing with other psychological problems: anxiety, depression, self-destructive or hostile impulses, post-traumatic stress disorder … and alcoholism may be the chicken or it may be the egg or it may be a hybrid egg-chicken.

Like many alcoholics, Stephanie would always deny that she had a problem. Drinking was her way of medicating against anxiety, she claimed. She would seem to be dependency-prone: she’s also so addicted to smoking that she lights up in airport toilets and risks setting off the alarms. And the proclivity can be hereditary by example.

There’s an old hillbilly song from way back in the 20th century in which the singer carols his ‘two good amigos, Nick O’Teen and Al K. Hole’. Stephanie has inherited the same two amigos. Alcohol killed her father. Both her grandfathers were alcoholics and both died through drink.

You can’t stop her drinking

That’s what Michelle is up against. “You can’t cure her,” she was told by her Alcoholics Anonymous contact. “You can’t change her. You can’t stop her drinking. If she wants to drink herself to death, that is her right.”

In June, Michelle fielded a call from security staff at Sydney Airport. They had Stephanie in custody after she’d been turned back at the boarding gate for an interstate flight. Stephanie had, then, been on the booze for three months without relent. When Michelle arrived to redeem her, Stephanie didn’t recognise her. She could barely stand up, couldn’t walk without support. But once she was walking, she had to get out of there as quick as could be: she was desperate for a smoke. Also, she stank.

Again, Stephanie insisted that she didn’t have a drink problem. She only drank to allay her anxiety.

That’s the nature of the ‘drunk crazy’ carousel. Drinking may relieve anxiety and associated depression etc., in the short term, but it exacerbates them in the longer term, requiring another dive to the bottom of the bottle with even deeper anxiety and depression to follow.

Maybe Stephanie recognised this. After the airport rescue, Michelle was surprised when her sister agreed to try detoxification. She’d had a few drinks by then. And Michelle’s first task was to persuade her to have a shower.

Drinking two or three bottles of wine a day

“It was hard to believe this was my sister – the person who used to take hours to get ready, doing her hair, her face, and making sure she looked just right before leaving the house. Now I was pleading with her to have a shower.”

Michelle found a place for Stephanie at the Gorman House detox unit at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital. But she had the care of her sister for the next five days before there would be a bed available and she learned in that time just how much Stephanie was drinking: at least two bottles of wine a day and sometimes three.

Michelle was advised that she shouldn’t try to stop her sister drinking: to do so without medical supervision might well be dangerous.

So, it might have been the wine talking when, at Gorman House, Stephanie announced very positively: “I need to do this.”

Three days later she checked herself out. There were too many ill-mannered people in detox, too many crazy people, “meth-heads throwing furniture”. Michelle’s reading on it was that Stephanie had started to feel better and wanted to celebrate the fact the only way she knew – by going back on the grog and having a good time.

That’s the nature of the addiction enemy. It may be persuaded to make a tactical retreat for a while – for weeks or months or even, sometimes, for years – but then, too often, it will insidiously reassert itself. The addiction may have become an identity: the victim will embrace it as her/his special reality, without which she/he is a nobody.

Patient must admit they have a problem

For the carer trying to rescue an alcoholic ‘patient’, the perspective is a maze of warning signposts. The very first step might be insurmountable: nothing can happen, the experts say, unless the patient can first be persuaded to admit that she/he has a problem. But the basic rule is that it’s useless to attempt to discuss a drinking problem when the patient’s drinking. Catch-22.

Nor, the experts argue, is there much use in trying to persuade an alcoholic to cut down on their drinking: that’s like telling a girl to get only a little bit pregnant (Dennis Wholey, The Courage to Change). 

Sister refused to go to hospital

A few days after Stephanie signed herself out of Gorman House, there came, inevitably, the ‘come-and-get-your-sister’ call. Michelle found Stephanie in a pub in a sodden, slurring, staggering condition with a stranger who was using her credit card to buy drinks.

Michelle took her sister to the St Vincent’s emergency department, hoping she could get her readmitted to the detoxification unit. But Stephanie refused to go in and Michelle, not for the first time – and, she knew, not for the last – walked despairing away. But then …

The fundamental essential of alcoholic rescue is that the alcoholic must seriously want to stop being an alcoholic. And that’s what appeared to happen next. The morning after Stephanie refused to enter the St Vincent’s emergency department, she called and said she was ready to go back to Gorman House.

This time she made it through the detoxification program and transferred to a rehabilitation centre. “They say only three per cent make it,” she told her sister. “I’m going to be one of them.” But after just a few hours she walked out and left no word where she was going.

For Michelle, it was back to Square One. She, like all carers, was trying to live her own working life in tandem with the ‘patient’ rescue effort, but Stephanie’s ‘crazy’ was taking over her existence.

That’s the standard warning support organisations like AL-Anon give people: You are not responsible for another person’s drinking, but you ARE responsible for your own wellbeing.

And, indeed, it’s an irony of the alcoholism rescue business that the mission may become such an all-absorbing obsession that the carer forms a dependency on her/his identity as the alcoholic’s lifeline.

Some days after Stephanie disappeared, Michelle’s phone rang. She knew what was coming. The caller was a stranger. He said he’d seen a young woman in a distressed condition on one of the country platforms at Sydney Central Station. When he asked her if she needed help, she gave him Michelle’s number to call.

To contact AL-Anon in New South Wales, the ACT or Southern Queensland:

Al-Anon Family Groups Southern NSW Area (includes A.C.T.):

Office Address: * Suite 4, 2 Ormonde Parade, Hurstville NSW 2220
Office hours: 10:00 am to 3:00 pm Tuesday & Wednesday
Telephone: (02) 9570 3400
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
* Service disability access is not available at this location, with apologies

Information Service Office Canberra:

Office Address: Level 1, Room 1.11, New Griffin Centre, Genge Street, Canberra ACT 2601
Telephone: (02) 6249 8866
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Al-Anon Family Groups Northern NSW Area:

Mailing Address: P.O. Box 217, Hamilton NSW 2303
Office Address: Room 6, St Peter's Church Hall, Dixon Street, Hamilton NSW 2303

Office hours: Monday:10.00 am to 2.00 pm 
Telephone: (02) 4969 3889
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Al-Anon Family Groups Western NSW Area:

Office Address: Suite 108 A/B, 114-116 Henry Street, Penrith NSW 2750

Office Hours: Tuesday 11.30am - 2.30pm
Telephone: (02) 4731 1442
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Al-Anon Family Groups South Queensland Area:

Office Address: Unit 3, 1050 Manly Road Tingalpa QLD 4173
Office hours: 10.00 am until 2.00 pm Monday to Thursday
Telephone: (07) 3890 1244 | Fax: (07) 3854 03336
Help line: 1300 252 666 (for the cost of a local call)

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

National: Australian General Service Office

Mailing Address: GPO Box 1002, Melbourne Vic 3001
Office Address: Level 7, 51 Queen Street, Melbourne Vic 3000
Office hours: 10:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Thursday
Telephone: (03) 9620 2166 | International: +61 3 9620 2166 | Fax: (03) 9620 2199
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

School ill-treatment of students with disability

 

Another series of stories has surfaced about the ill-treatment of students with disability in schools.

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Parent Carer Image 2

The ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a story last month on yet another child with disability being mistreated at school.

The student was caged. Another student was bullied so badly at school he became suicidal.

In the first case, Emily Dive has lodged a complaint against the Victorian Education Department with the Australian Human Rights Commission on behalf of her eight-year-old son, Lachlan Murrell, who is autistic and has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Ms Dive, a working carer, claims that Lachlan was held for hours on end in a two-metre square plywood cell with a peephole in the door and no windows. He had been shunted from school to school and a year ago, was expelled for allegedly assaulting a teacher. Lachlan hasn’t set foot in a classroom since.

“He has no self-esteem,” Ms Dive told the 7.30 Report. “He has no self-worth. He has no identity as a student. Socially, he’s missed out on a lot of opportunities and obviously academically as well.”

Complaints taken to Human Right Commission

The Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, has ordered an independent investigation into the claims.

According to the 7.30 Report, the case is one of six disability discrimination complaints currently before the Human Rights Commission involving allegations of physical restraint, seclusion and exclusion from schools. There are another five cases before the Federal Court. Some involve working carers.

One of the HRC cases involves a young boy with autism who was subjected to bullying so severe he became suicidal. The boy’s parents are claiming that the school did not take adequate measures to ensure that the bullying stopped.

As is so often the case, when the child with disability rebels against their circumstance, it’s them who carry all the blame and shame. The boy in this case was suspended from the school several times and, finally, expelled because of ‘behaviours which were symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities’.

It is never admitted that ‘behaviours’ might be symptoms and manifestations of a failing system.

According to Julie Phillips of Disability Discrimination Legal Service Inc in Melbourne, state governments across Australia are doing nothing to rectify situations like the ones in the above two examples.

“I would hope that the conversations we’re having now strike a chord with departments of education because they tend to ignore all the evidence that the system is broken … Instead of thinking about ‘what shall we do with these kids, where shall we put them? [they should] concentrate more on resourcing the schools.”

Children with disability paying for inadequate system

As it is, it’s children with disability, their families – many of whom are working carers – who are paying the price for inadequacies in the education system.

A starting point for an effort to fix the ‘broken’ system would be recognition of the fact that a student who is ‘different’ may very well need someone to mediate between him/her and the system, to intercept and divert behaviours which are ‘symptoms and manifestations of his disabilities’.

The system needs to employ and train specialist educators and teacher-aides to guide children coming from segregated environments on their entry into the strange, and very often unwelcoming, new world of mainstream education.

Attitudes need to be corrected. Aides and teachers too need to understand that the presence of a student who is different can benefit the whole class, particularly in the matter of tolerance and charity. And that surely must be a plus in a world where there is so much hostility to ‘otherness’.

The authorities commanding the system need to realise that positive outcomes are possible. Certainly, they cannot be achieved by putting kids in cages or cells.

Australian Human Rights Commission:

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Level 3, 175 Pitt Street, SYDNEY NSW 2000

GPO Box 5218, SYDNEY NSW 2001

Telephone: (02) 9284 9600
National Information Service: 1300 656 419
General enquiries and publications: 1300 369 711
TTY: 1800 620 241

The NSW Disability Discrimination Legal Centre provides free information, advice and representation in relation to disability discrimination law for people with a disability, their associates, disability organisations and community legal centres. The centre employs a full-time solicitor assisted by volunteer law students.

Phone: (02) 9310 7722

1800 800 708

Text Telephone Number: (02) 9313 4320

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Website: http://www.ddlcnsw.org.au

Postal Address: PO Box 989, STRAWBERRY HILLS, 2012

Bullying in the workplace special report

 

“People are capable of great good. And people are capable of great evil.”

Bullying

This is Australian lawyer Josh Bornstein, national head of Employment Law at the Maurice Blackburn legal firm, talking about bullying in Australian workplaces.

It’s widespread. It’s a whole toxic culture of oppression that destroys lives, that damages not just the victims but those who witness bullying behaviour and the perpetrators themselves.

Working carers are often the victims of workplace bullying. Too vulnerable to stand their ground and speak out against oppressive practices, they often endure overt and covert harassment, sometimes on a long-term basis.

Research indicates that one in every two Australian employees will be subjected to bullying at some time. Forty per cent of the victims will suffer the abuse early in their careers. Thus, the cyclical nature of the abuse culture: today’s victim may well become tomorrow’s bully.

The above statistics were from a study by the University of Wollongong which found that up to seven per cent of study respondents had been bullied in the previous six months.

An earlier study at Griffith University estimated workplace bullying cost the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion annually. And that was in 2001, 16 years ago.

Most complaints not investigated

“The complaints are pretty universal all over the country. In the case of workplace bullying, the occupational health and safety watchdogs aren’t adequate,” Josh Bornstein told Fairfax reporters working on a recent special report on workplace bullying.

“And why? One, because they don’t investigate most complaints. And, two, if they do, they’re handled poorly.”

Borstein says the cases that go to court and make headlines are just the tip of the iceberg. A very large percentage of bullying victims can’t afford the cost of litigation. “There’s a huge unmet demand for legal assistance for people who suffer workplace bullying,” he told Fairfax.

NSW Government launches bullying inquiry

One case that did make it to court has become a landmark. In October last year, a woman was awarded more than $1 million in a negotiated settlement after a concerted campaign of bullying rendered her incapable of ever working again. Her employer was the NSW Government.

Now, ironically, the NSW Government has launched a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying. It begins hearings this month.

The $1 million payout victim (anonymous in news reports, but we’ll call her Mary) told Fairfax reporters she still didn’t know what provoked the campaign against her back in 2011.

“My career was going well. The agency had just paid for me to do a public service management course. I thought I was earmarked for senior management. And then this happened.”

Mary, then 41, had applied for another job within the government agency where she worked. She realised she’s made an error in filling out the form and withdrew her application. Nonetheless, her superiors, a man and a woman, insisted that she attend a meeting to explain.

But then when she sat down, they accused her of having an inappropriate relationship in the office. The next accusation was that she’d been passing off a colleague’s ideas as her own.

“I was blindsided by it,” Mary told Fairfax. “I couldn’t understand where the allegations were coming from. Had they given me some sort of notice or asked me in a less hostile environment, I could explain it. It was just incorrect. But they just kept going and going. I was sobbing and doubled over and they were still making allegations about information sharing.

“It just didn’t stop. At one point, they said we can put you in contact with the counselling service. I said I will absolutely need it after this meeting and still they went on. I don’t know why I didn’t walk out. It went on for ages.”

Campaign of humiliation

Mary was due to go on annual leave. When she returned, she found she’d been sidelined. She was parked at a desk outside the office of the team she used to manage and given nothing to do. She asked to be moved out of that department, but the campaign of humiliation was permitted to continue.

The legal firm of Carroll & O’Dea took on her case. During the five years it took to achieve a settlement, Mary and her children were kept under surveillance by agents of the insurance companies involved.

“Everything was challenged. I was pushed to the absolute limit. I’m surprised I’m still actually here.”

She said she’d hoped she’d start feeling better when her five years of ‘hell’ finally ended. “But I still don’t. I can never get those five years back. I can’t do what I used to do.”

A psychologist with 20 years’ experience in the field, Evelyn Field, says that the ‘caring’ professions are hotbeds of bullying. She sees teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors, she says, but very few accountants or engineers.

Josh Bornstein blames what he calls “command and control” workplace cultures, such models as the military and police and ambulance services, which, he says, “often produce pretty terrible bullying cases and with some catastrophic health consequences.”

Dr Carlo Caponecchia of the University of NSW agrees that bullying and harassment seemed to be endemic in “hierarchical organisations” such as emergency services and the military.

“Research shows that people in emergency services are not so much stressed by what they see on the road; it’s what happens to them back at the depot, back at the station, in relation to their colleagues, in the support they get or don’t get from the service by which they are employed.”

Devastating impact on mental health

This was the case for Cindy Modderman, who had been a police officer for 12 years before becoming an ambulance officer and who left the Ambulance Service in 2015. She had, by then, 25 years of frontline experience dealing with death and trauma.

“But the behaviour I was subjected to in the workplace had a far more devastating effect on my mental health than anything I’ve ever seen over that 25 years,” she told the ABC recently.

She had been subjected to four years of constant bullying and harassment from the time she started working in the ambulance control centre in Newcastle in 2011. The cruellest nastiness was a succession of taunts about her daughter who has an intellectual disability.

Her locker was broken into. On one occasion a phone-book was thrown at her head.

Complaining to management did her no good at all. The attitude at that level was that she must be flawed in some way.

“Management didn’t want to listen,” she said. “All they did was throw counter-allegations at me about things I had apparently done wrong.”

Evelyn Field sees bullying as a health risk, not just to the targets but to witnesses and perpetrators as well. But it’s the victims who pay the highest price: she cites increased risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies. There are physical effects too, she told Fairfax. “Two thirds put on weight, that’s pretty standard. A third would lose hair, a third to half would have headaches, blood-pressure problems, skin problems, gastro problems … Some people will go on to have fibromyalgia, cancer and heart attacks.”

Higher rates of depression, anxiety

Georgie Harman, CEO of beyondblue which sponsored the University of Wollongong study, agrees: “We know that those who experience and perpetrate workplace bullying have higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and health problems such as cardiovascular disease.”

She said such attempts as had been made to deal with the issue were achieving little.

“The strategies and policies tend to target individuals, including the perpetrator and the victim, not the organisation that allows the bullying to occur. We need to be targeting the organisations where there is a culture of bullying and to be empowering employees through communication.”

The bottom line is that there are people who get off on humiliating others. They inflate their own egos by belittling other people. They feel good when they can make somebody else feel bad.

Josh Bornstein sums it up like this: “You can try to find very sophisticated reasons for workplace bullying,” he told the ABC. “But sometimes it’s about just something as banal as personal dislike or jealousy, and then a desire to bring someone down.”

It’s very likely that many witnesses appearing before the parliamentary inquiry will advise that change has to come from the top. Evelyn Field concludes: “At the end of the day bullying is about poor management and a toxic culture. The fish rots from the head down.”

If you are being bullied, harassed or discriminated against because of your race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or because you have a disability or are pregnant you can contact the Australian Human Rights Commission. Call 1300 656 419

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/complaints_information/young_people.html

The Commonwealth Fair Work Ombudsman can provide information and advice about Australia’s workplace rights and rules and the protection you have against harassment and discrimination. Call 13 13 94.

https://www.fairwork.gov.au/employee-entitlements/bullying-and-harassment

SafeWork NSW can provide advice and help if you are experiencing workplace bullying. Call 13 10 50.

http://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/health-and-safety/safety-topics-a-z/bullying