There are a number of challenges facing veterans in their life after service – from making the initial transition back to civilian life to re-establishing themselves in a new and unknown version of their future. Underpinning their capacity to do this well - or in fact, at all - is the state of their mental health and general wellbeing.

The regimented nature of the profession, of course, requires a level of resilience to be developed. As the structural nature of work responsibilities and routines, collegial engagement and a work-related focus on health and fitness changes, however, so does an individual’s capacity to adapt that resiliency to a new set of circumstances. For many veterans, mental health problems that arise during their transition, making them increasingly vulnerable and subsequently can increase their risk of suicide during this time.

The mental health and wellbeing of veterans has become an issue that cannot be ignored, with hundreds suiciding in recent years, according to the report ‘Causes of death among serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel: 2002–2015’ published in September 2018 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Of the 1939 deaths of serving, reserve and ex-serving men and women, recorded between 2002 and 2015, more than half (52%) of those who died were veterans. Of that group, suicide was listed as one of the top three causes of death for men aged 16 to 29 and the leading cause of death for men aged 30 to 49.

An update to that report, focussing on national suicide monitoring of personnel stated “From 2001 to 2016, there were 373 suicides in serving, ex-serving and reserve Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel. Compared with all Australian men, the age-adjusted rate of suicide over the period was 51% lower for men serving full time in the ADF, 47% lower for men in the reserves and 18% higher for ex-serving men. In 2014–2016, ex-serving men aged under 30 had a suicide rate 2.2 times that of Australian men the same age.”

In simpler terms, of the 373 suicides that occurred during that 15-year period, 198 of those happened after discharge from service – more than half. The suicide rate was almost 20% higher for veterans and veterans under 30 are at the highest risk. These numbers clearly tell the story of the dramatic impact life in (and after) service can have on mental and emotional wellbeing, if proper support and considerations are not effectively implemented into the lives of servicemen and women at all stages of their career.

The gravity of the situation is more than evident, with talk of a royal commission into veterans’ suicide hitting the national media. The bereaved mothers - of 6 army veterans who suicided within a few months of each other – have created petitions, collected over a quarter of a million signatures and even met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, pleading for more to be done. Momentum from there has continued to build as various reports and inquiries fall short on real and tangible solutions.

There are positive changes happening however, as the annual Veteran’s Health Week – an initiative of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) – chose Mental Wellness as its theme. Events such as this, propel the issue into the national conversation, along with the DVA’s ongoing commitment to veteran suicide prevention. A Mental Health Clinical Management Pilot was announced as part of the 2017–18 Federal Budget, which will focus specifically on preventing suicide amongst veterans. In addition, there is an increasing availability of information; ranging from access to health care for mental health issues, background on a range of mental health conditions, including PTSD, Depression, Anxiety and Adjustment disorders and what veterans can do when they need support in both emergency situations and over a sustained period.     

Mental health and wellbeing are about much more than receiving a specific mental illness diagnosis and treatment plan. Mental health exists on a spectrum, ranging from short term, transitional difficulties, to longer-term more serious diagnoses and everything in between. Being mentally and emotionally well means being able to cope well in daily life, engage in a functional way when interacting with people and contributing to the lives of friends, family, and the local community. Recognising meaning and finding enjoyment is also key. If any aspects of these are missing, it may not be cause for alarm, but it could be a warning or trigger of things to come. Reaching out for help is the first step in preventing harm.

 There is a range of support currently available to veterans, their families and the general community when it comes to mental health, and it’s comprehensive and excellent. There are also some activities that can be done to improve the mental state, on an as-needed or regular basis.

 If you are a veteran, know a veteran or are the family member of a veteran who is going through difficulties, you can contact the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs for assistance or contact us at Carry On Victoria and we can point you in the right direction.