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Constable James Cox, left, his dad Craig, centre, and Constable Cameron Macdonald.

Coping with stress

Two young Auckland police officers will be cycling 1080 kilometres from Cape Egmont to East Cape next month to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress. Both have been members of Police for only a relatively short time, but they have already been exposed to the harsher realities of the job in two dramatic incidents.

As core members of a newly formed cycling group, Constable James Cox, 28, and Constable Cameron Macdonald, 22, will be spreading the word to first responders that “it’s OK to… talk, listen, cry or seek help”, if they need to.

The inspiration for the “It’s OK World Trip in New Zealand” event, which runs from March 25 to April 8, came from James, a PST officer in Ōrewa, who joined Police in 2017. He was a wingmate of slain police officer Matt Hunt and they briefly worked together in Ōrewa.

James says Matt’s murder on June 19, 2020, was hard to take and was “one hundred per cent on my mind”, along with other aspects of his job, when he was considering the idea of the cycle ride.

“I’m pretty resilient, but after attending a lot of sudden deaths and road crashes, I have noticed that it affects people.” Suicides especially are hard and prey on people’s minds, he says.

“We cope because cops are good at being resilient, but sometimes it’s just good to acknowledge that these things do have an effect.”

After Matt’s death, James says he considered “pulling the pin” on the job, but he was talked out of it by his dad, Phillip, an Auckland City senior sergeant, and Cameron’s dad, Craig Macdonald. The family are close because James is the partner of Cameron’s sister.

It was while James was cycling with Craig one day that he had the idea of “doing a decent ride” through New Zealand. “And with everything that is going on in Police at the moment, and with other people, I thought, why not do it for an actual cause?”

It’s not about raising money, but about starting conversations, he says. “Being able to say, ‘That car crash I went to did shake me – it reminded me of my mum or my daughter’, and just being able to say that to someone. Just admitting that you might need a hand. Blokes, especially, might go for a pint, but they don’t always talk about stuff, and some are struggling.”

Part of the scenic Kopiko Aotearoa trail that runs from Cape Egmont to East Cape. Photo: Tim Weston.

Mall knife attack

Cameron Macdonald joined Police in March 2020. At the time of Matt Hunt’s death, he was still at Police College. “Obviously, with James and few other friends in Police working in Henderson, I was a little bit panicked, and then finding out that it was someone from James’s wing, it hit pretty hard. I felt cut up. It made everything ‘real’.”

Post-traumatic stress was discussed at the college, he says, and he was previously a volunteer firefighter for 3½ years, so he’d already learnt to deal with some of the more gruesome aspects of first-responder work.

“Some of the stuff I’ve seen through fire and policing work would probably make any normal person rethink their life and say, ‘This isn’t what I want to do’, but I love the job.”

In September 2021, Cameron found himself confronting a new type of challenge when he was the first uniformed officer in the door to a callout at the LynnMall Countdown supermarket in Auckland, unaware that a Special Tactics Group team had already shot a man responsible for a terror-inspired stabbing attack on several people.

“I was going into that scene with no doubt in my mind that I was going to shoot him,” he recalls.

As he and other officers approached through the supermarket aisles, they heard mufti colleagues yelling that the offender had been shot. “Then we saw him. We went to check on him and put a tourniquet on him. Checked his pulse. He was dead. Another officer and I cleared the supermarket.”

Cameron was tasked with guarding the body – for three hours. The whole situation was very confronting, he says, during the scene guarding and over the next week, as he found himself dwelling on what had happened.

“All I could think about was that I could have been the one who shot this person. If STG hadn’t been there and we were the ones who had to deal with him… and how many more people he could have hurt in the time it had taken us to get there. It was within five minutes of the first call, but that was five more minutes that he could have attacked more people.

“It was lucky that we had the help we did and the fact we were there and able to help everyone and none of the victims died. We did our job properly. This is why we do the job.”

Cameron says he has always been able to detach himself emotionally from bad situations in the course of his work, but he’s a big advocate for mental health. He had counselling after the supermarket incident and says it’s obvious to him that “you can’t do without support – from your colleagues and your organisation”.

“I’m definitely seeing signs of stress at work. Everyone deals with it in their own way. Every time there is a stressful job, even if I didn’t go to it, I will ask in the muster room, ‘You all good?’”

His dad, Craig, who works in health and safety and was a volunteer firefighter for
17 years, notes that PTS among emergency service workers is more than twice that of the general population. He says the key points, identified in PTS research, that underpin next month’s 14-day It’s OK World Trip event are:

  • One in 10 active emergency services workers, including those who are retired, will have symptoms suggestive of PTS
  • An emergency worker with PTS may present with typical symptoms or related problems, such as anger, relationship issues, difficulty sleeping, substance abuse or a mental health crisis
  • Diagnosis is often delayed
  • There is an increased risk of suicide among emergency workers
  • Responders’ families can also be affected.

The cycle trail route will follow a combination of gravel and sealed roads, cycle trails and paths across the widest stretch of Aotearoa New Zealand, known as the Kōpiko Aotearoa trail (The Journey).

A core group of five cyclists, including Craig, Cameron and James, will cycle the entire course and they expect up to 50 people from other regions and districts to join for a day or two, or even just for a couple of hours – and for a chat, if they want to.

For more information on the It’s OK World Trip in New Zealand cycling event, email [email protected] , and for updates visit the Facebook page, itsokridenz.

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