After being questioned about the images, Mr Pritchard was told his payments could continue if he offered proof the events that sparked his mental ill health actually occurred.
“We’ve got to go and get statutory declarations from the officers that Michael used to work with, because Border Force have lost the paperwork for it all,” Mrs Pritchard said.
Mr Pritchard’s terms of employment prohibit him from speaking publicly, but his wife has shared his story to advocate on his behalf.
Multiple psychiatrists have diagnosed Mr Pritchard, who suffers nightmares that cause him to scream and lash out violently in his sleep, with PTSD and severe anxiety over the trauma he was exposed to as a customs officer, including child pornography showing the rape of babies.
Comcare approved Mr Pritchard for “generalised anxiety” last year and, while this did not give him access to the specialised treatment recommended for PTSD, the support was welcomed.
She said her husband being forced to justify being seen walking his therapy dog – recommended to him by his psychiatrist – and questioned on why he looked “relaxed” in public after taking tranquilisers added insult to injury.
“How can they sit in a room and determine Mike isn’t sick from a couple of videos of him out and about? He takes Valium just to leave the house,” she said.
Mrs Pritchard says a child’s cry is enough to trigger sickening flashbacks of the horrific material her husband had encountered on computers and mobile phones he examined on foreign ships while patrolling.
“He was going to commit suicide in May because he couldn’t handle the pictures in his head and spent almost three weeks as an inpatient in a mental health ward. I don’t know what they need to believe how sick he is,” she said.
An analysis of official data provided to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reveals Comcare is rejecting two thirds of psychological injury claims such as post traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression.
The data also reveals these rejections were overturned in one-third of cases appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal over the past three years, prompting calls for better training and support of public sector workers exposed to distressing incidents.
In 2018-19, Comcare rejected 342 of the 498 psychological injury claims received from federal government workers (69 per cent), after knocking back 308 of 501 claims (61 per cent) in 2017-18 and 275 of 442 claims (62 per cent) in 2016-17.
Comcare only rejected between 10 and 11 per cent of physical injury claims across the three years.
Community and Public Sector Union assistant secretary Melissa Donelly said the figures were “deeply concerning” and reflected “an urgent need for training and investment in proper care and prevention, and a real need to reduce the risk of psycho-social hazards”.
“The Commonwealth as an employer should be a model of best practice and leading the charge on reducing stigma around mental health, and preventing injury in its workplace,” Ms Donelly said.
A Comcare spokesman said claims could only be approved if employment was found to have “made a significant contribution to the employee’s condition” and said it did not implement quotas to limit the number of successful claims.
“Determinations for psychological injury claims are invariably more complex than for physical injury,” the spokesman said.
Beyond Blue, 1300 224 636; Lifeline, 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.