Defence workers with mental health issues: what are your obligations?

Jun 5, 2014

A fear of being declared medically unfit for service means many defence force employees with mental health issues seek independent treatment, but as a doctor do know your legal obligations regarding the disclosure of their personal information to employers?

Case study

In a recent case, a defence force worker, called Mr Y presented to an independent doctor reporting that he had been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and requesting anti-depressants.

The doctor agreed to prescribe the patient anti-depressants, but stipulated that he would need to review Mr Y in a fortnight.

The doctor held residual concerns about Mr Y’s ability to perform his work duties and whether he posed a risk to his colleagues, but was unsure if he was obligated to inform Dr Y’s employer of his mental health issues.

When is it necessary to report patients’ mental health issues to defence organisations?

As a first step, doctors who have concerns about a defence worker’s mental health should refer them to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Secondly, you should find out what the patient’s standard work duties involves so that you can make an informed judgement about any potential risk they may pose to themselves or their colleagues at work. In particular, finding out about access to firearms and ammunition is important as this will impact the evaluation of risk.

If you are worried about the patient’s occupational safety, but do not feel the concern is so serious that it requires immediate action, then you should encourage the patient to self-report their mental health problems to their employer.

Under the Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Act 2012, which was introduced on12 March 2014, if you hold a reasonable belief that the patient presents a ‘serious threat’ to the life, health or safety of an individual or to public health or safety, and it is unreasonable or impracticable to obtain consent from the patient you can disclose their personal information to their employer.

Under the new privacy laws, there is no longer a requirement that the threat is ‘imminent,’ but it must still be serious.

Learn more

For more information on the privacy laws:

For more advice, call Avant’s 24-hour Medico-legal Advisory Service on: 1800 128 268.

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