Veteran suicide roundtables document the heavy toll of life after service

By Kate Banville

Relationship breakdowns and financial stress, as well as physical and emotional injuries, are causing Australia’s veteran suicide crisis, according to a new report.


The interim National Commissioner for Defence and Suicide Prevention, Dr Bernadette Boss, has wrapped up a recent nationwide tour in search of answers to a hidden war that has cost more lives of Australian Defence Force (ADF) members than any combat.


Since November 2020, Dr Boss has held private roundtable meetings with invited representatives from community groups speaking on behalf of current and ex‑serving ADF members, academics, clinicians and chaplains in all states and territories.


The final meeting was held in Adelaide on February 4.


Summaries of the roundtables published on the Office of the National Commissioner website highlight some of the key factors and challenges discussed, including mental health drivers for leaving the ADF, transitioning to civilian life, mental health and wellbeing services, Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) claims processes and supports, relationship breakdowns, gambling and interactions with the justice system.


“There appears to be a correlation between transition out of the ADF and an increased likelihood of relationship breakdown and the need for data to be obtained in relation to this,” the summary states.


“Some participants discussed whether the inclusion of gambling machines within Returned Services Leagues (RSL) clubs contributes to unhealthy gambling among veterans.”


When summarising discussion points surrounding suicide and mental illness, Dr Boss noted that almost one in two veterans meet the criteria for a mental health condition in the year following discharge.


One in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year, according to research by the Black Dog Institute.


Dr Boss remarked that this needed to be further researched and taken into consideration when dealing with vulnerable veterans, in particular the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.


The summary also highlighted “[t]he importance of understanding ‘moral injury’, with research showing a correlation between moral injury and suicidality”.


“Some participants suggested the correlation between moral injury and suicide is significantly higher than PTSD and suicide,” Dr Boss notes.


“Substance abuse and alcohol culture in the ADF were raised as significant issues, which can result in people who are experiencing distress or physical pain self-medicating with large amounts of alcohol, ultimately exacerbating the problem.”


The complexity of various compensation legislation and the processing structures of DVA were also highlighted as issues for veterans trying to make claims.


The role of advocates and ex-service organisations (ESO) was scrutinised.


“ESOs may be contributing to difficulties in attempts to streamline or simplify the compensation schemes as ESOs fight over keeping every benefit across every Act,” the summary states.


“As these entitlements vary greatly, it may be too hard or too expensive for DVA or the Government to simplify the legislation and keep every entitlement.”


Dr Boss was appointed as the interim National Commissioner on 1 October 2020, months after the role was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the government’s preferred alternative to a royal commission into veteran suicides.


Legislation is currently before parliament to make the role permanent, a move that was delayed on 1 December 2020 after the bill was rejected in the Senate. Labor and Senate crossbenchers lashed the proposal as “inadequate” and demanded a royal commission instead.

Kate Banville is a Townsville-based journalist. A seven-year Army veteran, she has been a defence reporter for the Townsville Bulletin and has also worked at WIN News in Townsville and ABC Gold Coast. Connect with her on Twitter: @katebanville


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