An ex-boyfriend of mine was a university student who did some part time work for criminal barristers to pay his bills.
One of his jobs was for a barrister who was defending a rapist who had secretly taped every single one of his attacks. (There were a lot of these videos, not just a handful.)
To represent the man, the barrister needed to know what was on the tapes, but he was busy with a number of matters, and didn’t have the time to watch them himself.
So he got my ex-boyfriend to do it.
It totally changed him. He wouldn’t talk about it, except to tell me over and over that he was fine. But he went from regularly helping criminal barristers out to refusing work. And he later ruled out a career in criminal law.
Trying to get him to admit how much the experience had shaken him was virtually impossible.
So when Victorian Police Minister Wade Noonan announced the horrible things he was exposed to on a day to day basis had taken too much of a toll and he was stepping down for three months, I applauded him.
This is an unprecedented and important action for Noonan to take, and he deserves the support and well-wishes of the entire community.
Much like Andrew Robb’s decision to step back from the shadow cabinet when battling depression, Noonan has just done something very significant for not just himself, but for the broader conversation about mental health in Australia.
Working in fields where you are exposed to the awful side of humanity on a daily basis is gruelling.
I know this because I was a court reporter for 18 months and it nearly destroyed me.
The thing about awful, horrifying, soul-destroying crime? You, the general public, are almost certainly not going to hear about the vast majority of it.
You are not going to see the thousands of images of child pornography that lawyers, judges and in some instances juries, have to view.
You are not going to read even a sanitised news report on the dozens of incest cases the courts hear on a given day. (It’s just too hard to report on them without identifying people, which is against the law.)
You won’t have to listen to the victim impact statement of the woman whose partner took to her face with a a fork. Or the teenager whose stepfather sold her to his friends for sex.
I did, and I tell you right now I will never forget.
My editor at the time called the details of cases that were too ugly to print the “Wheatie spit” moments.
She wanted us to always write our account of the day’s criminality keeping in mind the people reading it would be doing so over their breakfast.
We didn’t want to write something that would cause them to spit it back out, she would constantly remind us.
I would go home at night and think about the trail of human misery I had seen that day; about the sheer, overwhelming volume of the awful.
It was too much. I simply couldn’t cope.
To be honest, I don’t know how anybody does.
My bosses were wonderful about it. When I finally cracked and told them I had to get out of the courts and why, it was barely a week before I was reporting on other matters.
I know I was lucky though, I am a woman, and I think it’s fair to say there is a lot less stigma involved in being a woman who “gets emotional” about something.
But the truth is everyone gets emotional. Everyone needs time away from exposure to horrific events and the worst in our society.
The Police Minister? I can only imagine how much awful comes with that job.
It is a big deal that Noonan felt he was able to take leave, and to publicly disclose why.
It is a credit to the Victorian Government and Opposition that this move has been met with support and encouragement.
And this is also a big step for men’s mental health.
Men are not less vulnerable than women. They are not “tougher”. They have feelings, and families and fears.
They should be able to say “this is too much”, and seek the treatment they need.
This is what Noonan has done, and his decision to do the right thing for himself will hopefully also help to break down the stigma around men seeking help with their mental health.
I hope he gets the support he needs, and can return to his job with renewed enthusiasm. Because that will be good for Noonan, and good for his portfolio.
It’s scary admitting to your boss that you’re not OK, and you can’t do that job anymore. But if that is how you really feel, it is an important conversation to have.