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Australia's veterans deserve the very best


  • Angus Clelland, Chief Executive Mental Health Victoria

  • Article in The Courier, Ballarat on 14 Feb 2020

I read recently about the extraordinary life to date of Sharon Bown, a former RAAF Wing Commander who survived a near-fatal helicopter crash in 2004 in Timor Leste, where she was deployed as an aeromedical evacuation nurse.

Her autobiography, One Womans War and Peace, talks about the injuries and scars that resulted from that accident which left her with a broken back, four jaw fractures and chemical burns on her shoulders and back from aviation fuel.


But she also talks about the psychological injuries. These were not just about the accident, but her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and all sorts of challenges in her work and personal life that were to follow. She has gone on to further her remarkable career. Just four years after the crash, she was appointed to command a critical care team in Afghanistan and is now a strong civilian advocate for veterans.


Her story provides a very graphic insight into some of the pressures that bear heavily on our military veterans, and that have no doubt since warfare began -- certainly since we referred to "shellshock" to describe the symptoms of PTSD in World War I.


For so long, these traumas went unsupported and unacknowledged, often unspoken. Many readers will have family members who would or could not speak of their experiences, whether they were at Gallipoli, El Alamein or Vietnam.

We have got better at providing that support in recent years, but still there is such unmet need.

We have got better at providing that support in recent years,

but still there is such unmet need

that can lead ultimately to tragic consequences.


The latest figures from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare tell us that between 2001 and 2017, there were 419 suicide deaths among serving, reserve and ex-serving ADF personnel.


It found that the rate of suicide in both serving and reserve men was lower than the rate for all Australian men, while for ex-serving men it was higher 18 per cent higher.


Suicide rates for ex-serving women, documented for the first time, were also higher than the rate for Australian women, but still lower than the rate for ex-serving men.


Mental Health Victoria, like many groups across Australia, welcomed this months announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison that he would establish a national independent commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention, who will have "Royal Commissioner-like" authority.


Not all advocates are happy with this. Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie, herself of course a veteran, is still urging a Royal Commission. At Mental Health Victoria, the key issue is not how the work should be done, but that it is done and urgently. By all means start a Royal Commission or a rolling Royal Commission process under the new commissioner, but accelerate the investment in non-clinical support services.


We have welcomed government action in recent years including the introduction of free mental health care for all veterans and their families. But the veterans groups and the statistics tell us also about the costs of financial distress, homelessness, substance abuse, relationship breakdowns and too often incarceration.


As Vietnam veteran and national president of the Defence Force Welfare Association Kel Ryan has said, the true impact of the transition process from military service to civilian life demands urgent attention.


Job security and housing security are critically important to their wellbeing, as well as support during and after relationship breakdowns. Getting these things right will go a long way towards reducing mental health challenges and suicide rates.

Many veterans come from or settle in rural and regional areas when they leave service. Some will find solace and strength in communities, others will live in the shadows - unwilling or unable to reach out for support, including from their own families who may struggle alongside them. Thats why we also welcome the establishment of the families advocate within the Department of Veterans Affairs, there to directly engage with families and to improve the design of all veteran programs and services, including mental health supports and services.


We hope that particular needs of veterans living in rural and remote areas and their families are addressed early as part whatever package of improved supports is funded by the Commonwealth. We owe veterans a huge debt for their service and sacrifices. Let's show our gratitude by making sure that ex-ADF personnel are properly supported.


Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria