What Did We Learn
10 Lessons by Chair of Operation COMPASS
by Lieutenant General John Caligari AO, DSC (Ret'd)
I was Chair of the Department of Health National Suicide Prevention Trial for Veterans and their Families (Operation COMPASS) for five years which ended in December last year. The purpose was to discover what might require a different approach culturally in the veteran community to reduce the incidence of mental health problems and suicide. It is now embedded as the foundation for all activity of The Oasis Townsville.
Here’s what I learned:
Connection. Connections are paramount. Although commonly accepted as relevant to everyone, it is more pronounced in the veteran community due to the teams and bonds formed in service to the nation and the devotion of families to their veteran’s service. Physical connection and interaction while doing something of common interest is essential. This drove the funding of small grants to community groups that offered such activities to better understand their utility for veterans and family members. This was the critical design factor and prime function of the facility that now houses The Oasis Townsville, which comprises mainly meeting and activity spaces.
Trust. Veterans and their partners are likelier to listen to and respond to those they trust. This reinforces what is widely known in all communities. In the veteran community, we prefer advice and information from peers and those with lived experience of ADF service, and where applicable, in mental health and the likely service-related causes. It is particularly relevant when ADF members are considering transition. It is why veterans take advice from peers before institutions and what drove the initiative to establish a peer network in Open Arms.
Navigation of Services. The veteran community needs support to navigate the civilian ‘sea of help’ that is available to support them but is challenging to navigate, given the degree to which they have been sheltered from civilian bureaucracy while serving. This is recognised in the plethora of online service directories being created for veterans and one of the main factors that drove the formation of The Oasis Townsville – a physical one-stop-shop for referral to the best services in Townsville.
Safe Homebase. Although often taken as parades and remembrance services, the real need is for veterans and their families to feel safe and respected, at least in a physical location where others in our community gather when needed. This is often not felt by veterans until they feel it. This is most important soon after transition but is a factor that returns periodically throughout the remainder of their lives. This was a crucial factor in establishing The Oasis Townsville.
Education for Health Professionals. There is a significant lack of appreciation of the sacrifices of ADF service in the sector that cares for ex-serving veterans. There is a need for the education of providers, especially GPs, on how to support veterans and their families best, especially where there are multiple allied health professionals involved. This is what drove the Operation COMPASS GP training to understand better veterans’ and families’ issues and how to work with DVA to get the best wellbeing effect for the ex-serving veteran and their family.
Harnessing the Helper Ethos. Health promotion is essential, but it needs to be camouflaged as being more about everyone helping others. The key obstacle is finding the opportunity and communicating common interests. This is principally about harnessing the helper ethos that prevailed while serving in the ADF, including on operations and supporting disaster relief in Australia. The desire to help does not end with separation from the ADF.
Non-Clinical Interventions. More social prescription options for health professionals are needed. A GP who recognises a veteran or partner needing social interaction to counter isolation and loneliness, rather than just medicine or surgery, needs better and simpler access to fewer organisations supporting the veteran community. It is unreasonable for us to expect them to understand how to access the overwhelming number of ex-service organisations focused on a specific veteran demographic offering a limited range of services. This is one of the functions increasingly being performed by The Oasis Townsville.
Community Campaigns. Veterans and their families, and most young people for that matter, respond best to campaigns, rather than belonging to organisations in the traditional sense. This is what drove the #CheckYourMates Campaign which had exposure and acceptance across significant parts of the veteran community. It was adopted by DVA for the 2021 Christmas and New Year period due to the spike in suicides by veterans in the preceding months. There is evidence it continues to be employed sporadically by pockets of veterans around Australia seeking to feel they are doing something for their mates needing help.
Local Tailored Support. There is a layer of support for veterans missing between DVA and the thousands of organisations that claim to have veterans as one of their beneficiaries. The former is too big to manage local veteran community issues across Australia. Finding an appropriate organisation among the latter is challenging, even for those without mental health issues. To address multiple issues, it is common to need the support of several organisations, that in itself requires a coordination effort. The veteran community will appreciate the value of community hubs that can serve this purpose as being developed by DVA in the Veterans’ and Families’ Hubs project.
Better data is critical. Spending taxpayers’ money requires evidence; even if it is widely accepted that a particular activity works to reduce the problem, it will get better traction and more likely funding if there is solid data and evidence behind the theory. This is what drove the demand for a Census question relating to ADF service, which is now driving the location of the additional 10 veterans’ and families’ hubs around Australia.
A report titled ‘Prevention through connection: supporting veterans to survive when their service ends’ was launched in November last year. Operation COMPASS last effort is to produce the resources and a tool kit to customise and develop the above for DVA, Defence, Department of Health and the 16 Veterans’ and Families’ Hubs.
The Black Dog Institute Report:
"Prevention through connection: supporting veterans to thrive when their service ends - A report on the National Suicide Prevention Trial"
Launched at The Oasis Townsville on Thursday 2 June 2022
An evaluation of the program was conducted by James Cook University before transferring to The Oasis. That report is available here.