Suicide rates for serving military personnel and veterans are likely to have been underestimated, says an ex-serviceman working with Australian Defence Force (ADF) members who have been wounded, injured or got sick from serving.
Recent unofficial figures from a Herald Sun investigation of suicide among serving military and veterans suggested that as many as 50 ADF personnel have killed themselves this year, more than the 41 who died over 13 years in the Afghanistan conflict.
Simon Sauer is CEO of Mates4Mates, an organisation which runs physical, social and psychological support programs for current and ex-servicemen and women. He said suicide figures were “potentially under-reported”.
Mr Sauer said the government had “no handle” on how many suicides occurred because once people left the service Defence did not track veterans, except if they were registered with the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA).
Veterans usually registered with the DVA because they had been wounded and got sick or injured during service and needed to pursue compensation claims.
“If you’re leaving Defence and you think you’re ok, or you have made the choice not to register with DVA because you don’t trust them then there’s nothing in your record that flags you as ex-Defence,” Mr Sauer said. “You could be Korean War veteran and your wife may not know you had ever served.”
In the US, the social security numbers of individuals match their number in the forces and the two are linked. This is not the case in Australia.
Mr Sauer said it was important to collect the statistics and track what was happening.
He said other professions such as police, paramedics and farmers also tended to have higher suicide rates.
“Maybe Defence hasn’t got a problem. We don’t really know,” he said.
“It comes back to mental health. Yes, it’s a problem for each of these [professions] but it’s actually a national problem and that’s what we need to be focusing on right from early school. Young boys need to be able to ask for help.”
The recent parliamentary inquiry by Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References into suicide among veterans has been brought the issue into sharp focus and highlighted the fact that there are no official statistics available.
Voluntary organisation Soldier On, which helps veterans of contemporary conflicts adapt to civilian life, wrote in its submission to the inquiry that the government needed to make a much bigger effort to collect these statistics and gain a better understanding of how to tackle suicide.
Soldier On CEO John Bale said there was no one answer to explain why Australian veterans were taking their own lives at such high rates but that it was “often a complex mix of multiple factors”, such as family and relationship issues; financial stress; unemployment; housing uncertainty, depression and anxiety; PTSD; alcohol and drug use and addiction and chronic pain.
He wrote: “The number of veteran suicides in 2016 alone indicated that a significant number of ex- service personnel who have been adversely affected by their service, are not receiving the level of care and ongoing support they require.”
Mr Bale said ADF members often experienced problems when they transitioned to civilian life and they started to feel lonely and isolated. This was particularly acute when they were medically discharged.
“In the ADF, members are constantly surrounded by like-minded individuals, rules and systems they understand and a purpose greater than themselves,” Mr Bale wrote.
“When they transition from the ADF to the civilian life, they often lose their friends, their job and their understanding of how life operates. Their sense of identity, tribal connection and purpose disappears in that one moment.”
Government News understands that the DVA is currently collecting suicide statistics by cross-checking coroners’ reports with service records – possibly going back to 2002 – in an attempt to get a clearer picture of suicide rates.
A DVA spokesperson said suicide prevention and supporting families affected by suicide was its highest priority.
“While Defence records all incidences of suspected or confirmed suicide among current serving members of the ADF, DVA does not have a complete picture of suicides in the ex-serving population. This is because DVA only becomes officially aware of a death by suicide of a veteran if a claim for compensation is lodged by a dependant in respect of the death of a veteran. In this case, a cause of death must be investigated to establish a relationship with service.”
The DVA has been working with Defence and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare since 2014 to understand the incidence of suicide among former serving members of the ADF, and investigating whether there is a difference compared with the Australian population. Preliminary findings of this research will be released by the end of the month.
The DVA is also developing a new pilot suicide awareness and prevention training program to complement its current suicide prevention programs, which includes face-to-face Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops delivered by the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service.
The new pilot program for veterans and their families is expected to equip individuals with the skills and confidence to identify and respond to veterans who might be at risk of suicide, or who have attempted suicide, and give ex-serving members and their families self-care strategies.
The DVA is also working on its Early Engagement Model, which it says will engage ADF members early in their careers so that they are aware of what support and services are available to them and promote early intervention and prevention of any mental or physical health conditions.
Meanwhile, veterans will be hoping that this model will help streamline their compensation claims by sharing data between Defence and the DVA, something that has been held up in the past due to privacy concerns over data sharing between the two departments. This would mean that people would have to provide some information only once, for example, about their injuries and treatment.
But this step forward needs substantial investment. The federal government announced in February this year that it would spend billions to upgrade Defence’s retro ICT systems under its Integrated Investment Program in the Defence White paper.
Both organisations have been strongly criticised because compensation claims can be demanding to prove and take many years to conclude thus exacerbating mental health problems for veterans and leaving them and their families struggling financially.
Mr Sauer said the DVA had introduced non-liability healthcare so that veterans could access treatment immediately while their claim was being processed, which he said this was a positive step but did not help families survive financially, particularly when claims can take multiple years to be settled.
In a submission to the inquiry, the Partners and Veterans Association of Australia said that the ADF and the DVA paid lip service to the partners and families of service men and women but often failed to give them any tangible help.
“Little thought is given to the financial situation of the veteran and family when a veteran’s disability precludes his/her ability to work,” the submission said.
“Often the claim process through DVA is difficult, with stumbling blocks at every turn and may drag on interminably, leading to extra stress on top of an already volatile home life. Loss of income and the extra strain this puts on the family is one of the major hurdles to overcome.”
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