Graduating in 1990 at the age of 21, she had aspirations of working her way up the ranks and becoming a senior manager. She was an outgoing, likeable, empathetic officer who worked well with others.
At the height of her career, Ms Howey provided close personal protection for the Prime Minister. She completed tertiary education and an honours degree in criminal justice. She even considered a career in psychology.
Almost two decades later, she was hiding in a cupboard after a neighbour knocked on the door unexpectedly.
Ms Howey said the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) she acquired after witnessing years of trauma in the job had completely changed her.
“I used to be extremely outgoing and sociable,” she said.
“When I got PTSD, I couldn’t leave the house, answer the phone or even pay a bill.
“I was no longer myself. I was a shell.”
Ms Howey said she believed the cause of her illness was a culmination of traumatic jobs at work, the lack of routine and specific incident follow-up and lack of support both locally and organisationally during her earlier years.
Despite the time that has passed, she still recalls details of jobs vividly, from the weight of a bag of dismembered fingers to the smell of burnt flesh.
Ms Howey said being the first responder to one of serial killer Peter Dupas’ victims was the moment the symptoms of PTSD began to appear.
“Usually when you attend a scene with a body, you can disassociate,” she said.
“You see a person overdose or die driving dangerously and you can say, ‘I don’t do things like that’.
“You can lie to yourself and pretend it will never happen to you.
“Nicole Patterson’s murder stuck with me because we were both at a similar stage in life and the way she died was so random and violent.
“I remember going home and feeling unsafe in my own home. I didn’t sleep.”
Ms Howey believes raising awareness and providing more services to support mental health could prevent others from going down her path.
“When I talk about my personal story at the Victoria Police Academy, I tell the recruits that what we do for a living isn’t normal and everyone will react differently to a job, and that’s okay,” she said.
“It’s okay to ask for help when you need it. I think if I was debriefed at the time and had the appropriate psychological treatment, I’d still be in the job.”
Ms Howey said it was promising to see the organisation making steps in the right direction.
“I admire the Chief for getting the ball rolling when it comes to raising awareness about mental health, but I think there’s more to be done,” she said.
As for her own wellbeing, Ms Howey said she had her good and bad days, but was determined to get better.
“I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m getting there,” she said.
Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton and The Police Association Victoria’s Secretary Wayne Gatt will walk 1,000 kilometres combined in October to raise funds for former police officers with mental health issues.
So far more than $180,000 has been raised for the cause, which will directly support the Victoria Police Provident Fund’s Mental Health Fund, initially supporting the vital services provided by the Retired Peer Support Officer Program.
Click here to learn more about the fund and how to donate.
Reviewed 15 May 2019