5 ways to wellbeing

Fortem Australia is a partner of the 5 ways to wellbeing, simple actions that can reduce stress and boost wellbeing.

  1. Connect
  2. Connecting with others strengthens bonds and builds resilience. When people are struggling, there’s a tendency to withdraw, so maintaining ties sometimes requires effort.

  3. Be active
  4. Mental and physical health are closely linked. Research shows engaging in regular exercise helps improve mental wellbeing and the ability to feel positive about life.

  5. Keep learning
  6. Learning new skills, no matter what your age, boosts self- confidence and helps establish purpose.

  7. Be mindful
  8. Being in the present has a range of benefits in building mental fitness, including greater self-awareness, resilience and help-seeking behaviours.

  9. Help others
  10. Acts of kindness as well as self-care are important to engage in every day.

First responders, those working within police, fire and ambulance services, undertake vitally important work. But as bushfires, floods and pandemic have highlighted, this work is often confronting, dangerous and difficult. Many on the frontline find limited help at hand or too many barriers to navigate when they struggle under the weight of the demands.

“We recognised the level of support first responders were getting from the community was nowhere near as good as veterans were getting,” says Fortem Australia managing director John Bale MAICD, a former military leader and co-founder of the defence not-for-profit, Soldier On Australia. First responders were also likely to find that any support services that did exist evaporated when they ended their employment. “There’s that saying, ‘There’s nothing so ex as an ex-cop’,” says Bale. “The door shuts pretty hard as you leave.”

Initially, Bale sought to support first responders under the banner of Soldier On, but found the needs of the two groups to be quite different. Instead, after the 2019–20 bushfires, he used Soldier On as a template to launch Fortem Australia, which provides evidence-based, comprehensive and integrated wellbeing support to first responders and their families. “Veterans see a lot of pretty horrendous stuff, but our first responders see so much as well, and we as a community didn’t really appreciate that,” says Bale.

The potentially traumatic incidents veterans encounter are generally confined to the term of their deployment, but first responders face repeated, often daily exposure to serious accidents, crime, homicides, completed suicides and physical aggression, he notes.

After 40 years in law enforcement, including as Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Graham Ashton AM APM was well acquainted with the mental health impacts of police work. As Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police from 2015–20, he was instrumental in leading mental health reform. “Five years in that role allowed me that opportunity to do some really overt things that could make a difference,” he says.

Bale first encountered Ashton at the launch of Answering the Call, Beyond Blue’s 2018 report, based on a survey of 21,014 Australian police and emergency services personnel. Among its staggering findings were that one in four surveyed former employees experience probable post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSC) — compared to one in 10 current employees. One in three experience high to very high psychological distress.

It also found that employees and volunteers reported having suicidal thoughts more than two times higher than adults in the general population and were more than three times more likely to have a suicide plan. So when Bale approached him to become chair of Fortem Australia, Ashton didn’t need to think twice. “Mental health is one of those areas of focus for me,” he says. “It’s something I’m passionate about and wanted to stay involved with.”

There are other organisations such as Blue Hope and the Code 9 Foundation, which address different aspects of the first responder experience, but Bale says that Fortem Australia’s unique focus is on bringing families along for the ride.

“Over the past 15–20 years, the military has done a really good job of bringing families into this community and making them understand the unique requirements of being in the military,” he says. “That’s not the case yet with first responders, there’s still a way to go.”

Ashton agrees that families are often disconnected from the policing experience and what their loved ones are going through. “The attitude of most police I know is to not take their issues home,” he says. “It’s a protection mechanism for the officer in terms of providing a safe place to go to and not to have to recount issues... but for the families, that creates a difficult environment in terms of support, understanding and then dealing with their own issues that flow from that.”

”Veterans see a lot of pretty horrendous stuff, but our first responders see so much as well, and we as a community didn’t really appreciate that.” - John Bale

Mental health by stealth

Fortem Australia offers a range of programs, including family resilience, clinical support and mental fitness. It favours a “mental health by stealth” approach, providing ‘soft entry’ into wellbeing programs such as walking groups, cooking classes and coffee catch-ups, which lets family members form connections with others and talk about the issues they’re facing.


surveyed former employees experience post- traumatic stress syndrome compared to one in 10 current employees. One in three experience high to very high psychological distress.

Source: Beyond Blue’s 2018 report.

Data gathered since the organisation’s launch reveals that 21 per cent of the people engaged in psychological services (clinical support) came to it by first participating in one of the wellbeing activities. Fortem Australia engages with a range of agencies, including the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force, through a 12-strong advisory board, which meets every two or three months. Five other directors work alongside Ashton and Bale on the governing board, which meets every two months.

Bale says Ashton’s influence and insight has been invaluable. “We had friends or relatives who were first responders, but that doesn’t cut it from a lived experience perspective,” says Bale. “To be able to talk to Graham and bounce ideas off him — with his extensive experience and continued passion for mental health — that was just fantastic.”

Ashton notes that Bale is highly able — adept at stakeholder management and maximising the financial support from the government that the organisation is eligible for— but sometimes needs a sounding board.

“I understand, having previously been a CEO, that it can be a very lonely job,” he says. “John’s running around Canberra trying to lobby politicians or dealing with the different first responder agencies — and a lot of that he’ll do on his own. So I try to help provide solutions to the challenges he faces with the agencies he’s dealing with — and to knit together networks that assist in terms of achieving the aims of the Fortem Australia.”

As a fast-growing organisation, an ongoing challenge is maintaining longevity of funding, so developing new revenue streams and engaging philanthropic interests is important. “With staff employed across the country, a critical issue is to make sure it’s not a feast or famine in terms of that funding,” says Ashton.

The organisation’s not-for-profit philosophy is underpinned by Five Ways to Wellbeing, a set of practical lifestyle habits developed in partnership with Royal Melbourne Hospital (see breakout). The pair say these considerations are also of practical help for directors and business leaders in considering their own wellbeing and that of their workforce.