By Dave the Trucker
Since 2001, twice as many ADF veterans like myself have been lost to suicide than to armed conflict. The promise of a Royal Commission seems too little, too late.
CW: The following piece discusses suicide.
After months of political pressure, Scott Morrison has finally announced a Royal Commission into the climbing rates of veteran suicide. As journalist Daniel Hurst noted, “The government had previously resisted calls for such an inquiry by saying its plans for a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention would be able to examine the problem on a rolling basis and would have similar powers to a royal commission. But the bills to set up such a commissioner as an independent statutory office holder have languished in the Senate.”
Labor has also piled on, saying the lack of a Royal Commission was “a national disgrace that more veterans have died by suicide than in war in the past 20 years, and veterans are dying at twice the rate of suicide of the general population.”
Back in November, the nation received the finer details of the war crimes inquiry report, one that Scott Morrison forewarned the population about, noting that the findings are ‘serious, grave’ and ‘warrant’ criminal investigation.
At the time, the Defence Welfare Association bit back regarding the vivid media speculation of what the hideousness may be. In conversation with The Guardian, the president of the association, Kel Ryan, said that “What we are seeing because of the inflammation of the whole issue by media it is having a detrimental effect on the welfare – the mental welfare – not only of veterans but their families and their children…the media is not helping the situation – it is speculating, it is driving speculation.”
Now, I’m not defending anyone who commits war crimes, but again, we’re discussing the mental health of veterans whilst debating something larger. It’s a conversation that we’re perennially on the cusp of discussing, but seldom pause long enough to solve it.
According to a brief prepared for the Defence Minister, twice as many active members of the ADF have committed suicide than have been lost in the Afghanistan/Iraq conflict. The data stems from research that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) published back in January, discovering that between 2001 and 2015, there were 325 certified suicide deaths. The data that united them was that they all had at least one day of ADF service.
What we have is a systemic problem. One, according to the brief, the ADF are looking to solve. Their Defence Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy promises to “deliver on its commitment to develop a whole-of-organisation approach to improving mental health and wellbeing.”
The problem, of course, is that it is a new strategy. The program, which will carry on until 2023, will: “utilise the lived experience and recovery stories of ADF members with mental health concerns; develop options for peer support so that ADF members can support each other to access the right information and care when it is needed; implement better ways to engage families when we provide treatment and rehabilitation for ADF members with mental health conditions; improve support and access to specialist mental health services.”
The strategy was (eventually) implemented in the wake of a 2017 Senate inquiry that threw the veil back on the mental health of our veterans. Government funding (to the tune of $31 million) was pumped into the problem, and this program is the result. It’s not particularly a home run, as the measures just look to build on what already exists, plus instituting a new “veteran’s payment”, which sounds dangerously similar to the dole.
The further measures include “$2.1 million over four years for an annual health assessment for ex-serving ADF members for the first five years post-discharge and $4 million over two years to pilot a case management service for transitioning or recently discharged ADF members.”
The ADF believes that the problem is solving the how. It runs deeper than that. My question is, why did it take so long?
Having served, I think I know why. The ADF sat on the issue because they didn’t believe it was one. They weren’t going to look into it until someone forced them to. It’s an issue of culture. One where only the tough will make it, and if you return, well done, and well, you’re not really their problem anymore. Those who chose that way out were weak. No-one says that out loud, but it is certainly thought. It’s the way we’re programmed. To be able to kill, one must be strong. If you make it back, that’s your prize.
The issue of veteran well-being (beyond political point-scoring) is strangely taboo in this country. Those who served have long been cynical about our worth when we return. We’re not a big problem, we’re not even a small one. We’re routinely ignored. We’re the veterans of unpopular wars: Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. For the most part, the populace didn’t want these conflicts, so for any damage incurred fighting on the wrong side of history.
Two people that I know served, took themselves. One was a surprise, the other wasn’t.
But the challenges we face should be heard, as they’re certainly real. Let me explain. The transition between the before and the after is our primary issue. It’s extremely difficult to force yourself back into the same box that you left. You can’t concentrate, your mind wanders. So, you self-medicate, drink and whatever to try and function at work, and because of that, you’re let go.
Time spent idle is the danger. You become unemployed. You feel alienated, and with that, the images you’re trying to suppress return. You’re unsure how to articulate your problems to those who wouldn’t understand, so you distance yourself. Not because it’s easier, rather it seems like the only choice. In that space, those images overcome you, and they live again. Often, the choice of death to kill them off seems logical. I know this, because I’ve felt this. I know this, because I’ve been told this. I know this, because I’ve seen it.
Two people that I know took this route. One was a surprise, the other wasn’t. The odd thing that I noticed is that discussion between vets isn’t assured. Often we say nothing, primarily to avoid setting the others off. Stoic silence is our default. It’s what we’ve been taught. And that’s what needs to change. We need to be able to discuss what we suppress.
With the above considered, the ADF’s measures could work and maybe the Royal Commission could change things. Especially to those with fresher trauma, those who haven’t completely absorbed the blow. But to those like me, where that trauma has manifested into a lifetime of destructive, negative behaviour, one where clutching to the bad, terrible and awful is normal, because you feel that you’ve deserved it, well it might be too late for us. It is certainly too late for those who felt that suicide was the only option.
This article was originally published on The Big Smoke.
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