When Newport’s Tony Walker became a paramedic almost 34 years ago, he said mental health wasn’t discussed.

“Regarding the difficult cases you did, you pretty much were expected to just suck it up,” he said.

Five years ago, Mr Walker became Ambulance Victoria’s chief executive officer and made it his job to improve the mental health and wellbeing of first responders. He has been named as one of seven finalists for the University of New South Wales’ Australian Mental Health Prize.

Mr Walker said the wake-up call was when he learned paramedics were four times more likely to suicide than the general community and three times more likely than any other Victorian emergency services member.

“It was interesting talking to some of my colleagues who have been in the job about the same time as me or longer at their retirement,” he said.

“They’d go down the pub every Friday night and get drunk with a police officer to deal with the issues they may have experienced collectively during that week … and that was often the way.

“People would self medicate, they may take sick leave or they leave the job, and in many cases they’ve never admitted they’ve had a mental health injury associated with the job because it was just never spoken about.”

Mr Walker said talking about mental health helped break down the stigma, and shared a story of his own. “I remarried a few years back and I’ve got a little four year-old daughter,” he said.

“When she was very small, I found myself very uncomfortable bathing her by myself … and it related to some cases I’d attended early in my career that never caused me an issue at the time.

“There was just this underlying sense of anxiety that once I was able to shine a bit of a light on – I see a psychologist regularly because I’ve learnt that’s a good thing to do – I was able to work that through and understood what it was and it’s been fine since.”