In this episode of GET REAL we meet Bruce Perham, a social worker of more than 30 years who is also a family and narrative therapist. He is the director of a counselling collective called Let's Talk Differently, which specialises in the area of occupational fatigue within front-line responder professions.
Bruce’s career has mainly been in the not-for-profit sector and more than a decade ago he moved into working with first responders, in particular prison officers, around the psychological impact of their constant exposure to traumatic incidents through their occupation.
This experience and the organisational training and counselling Bruce has conducted over the years led him to write a book called Code Blue: Prison Officer in Danger.
We know through some of the conversations we’ve had on this podcast that first responders are particularly vulnerable to trauma. In Code Blue, Bruce makes the point that the work of Prison Officers and their day-to-day experiences are largely hidden, unlike the police or firefighters or ambulance officers. The public don’t see what life in prison is like or understand that prison officers are in a workplace of constant high-stress that requires vigilance at all times.
Bruce also shares with host Robyn Haydon about his own experience with trauma and mental health. When Bruce was a young social worker, he experienced anxiety and depression, triggered by a home visit he did one day at work with a mother who was in distress.
“It was just like a grenade went off...I was just trying to hold myself together...that was the beginning of something not being right,” Bruce explains.
This led to Bruce discovering that the death of his twin sister Leanne, when they were infants, had a traumatic impact on him that he never realised.
“Looking back, I see more clearly that the workplace was the stage that retriggered my childhood trauma and ostensibly had caused me so much turmoil,” Bruce says.
“It was a long time later that I realised it was that visit to that mother that really triggered back into my own mother...the level of grief in that exchange was the arrow that broke all the defences down.”
If you are affected by anything discussed in this episode, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or go to lifeline.org.au
You can find out more about Bruce’s work and his book Code Blue: Prison Officer in Danger at letstalkdifferently.com.au
Listener notes: When talking about his early career in the 1980s in disability, Bruce references a book and movie called Annie’s Coming Out. This was a pivotal moment in awareness and advocacy for people with a disability in Australia. The book and movie are about a girl with cerebral palsy, unable to communicate and living in a government institution from an early age. Her therapist works with her to learn to communicate and then begins a legal fight when Annie turned 18 to get her released from government care.
One of Bruce’s earlier workplaces was as a social worker, working with families who had children with cerebral palsy. The name of the organisation was then-the Spastic Children’s Society of Victoria (now known as Scope).