Like many people in Australia, I have a family history with the Defence Forces. My grandfather was in service, and he spent two years in Changi POW camp. I have fond memories of my grandfather – though he had a love of cricket that I couldn’t quite grasp – but it was clear that he was forever changed by his experiences of war. It reverberated with some members of his family experiencing significant mental health problems.
In his response to the interim report, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh rightly called the rate of veteran suicide in Australia a national tragedy. As a nation, we have lost more serving and ex-serving Defence personnel to suicide than we have lost through the last 20 years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The disproportionate rate of suicide amongst our veteran community must not continue, and is a particular responsibility of the Australian Government to prevent. The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide is the opportunity to bring together reforms recommended by previous inquiries to create systemic change, and fundamentally improve the wellbeing of Defence personnel and veterans now and into the future.
This week saw the release of the Commission’s interim report. It is wonderful to see that the interests of serving and ex-serving Defence Force members, and their families, are at the forefront of this systemic reform, and a real emphasis has been placed on ensuring the voice of lived experience is integral to the inquiry.
In the joint submission by Suicide Prevention Australia and Mental Health Australia – developed in consultation with both support service providers and people with lived experience of military service and suicide – there was a strong consensus regarding key underlying issues relating to Defence and veteran suicides.
These issues are interrelated and can be expressed in different ways, but of great significance is the moral violation from the feeling of betrayal when commanding officers, the Defence institution, or Australian society in general, do not act in veteran’s best interests.
What we’ve seen to date is a compensation and rehabilitation system that is difficult to navigate. The legislation that governs this system is too complex, it leaves agencies tied up in bureaucratic process and takes them away from the crux of the matter – supporting veterans and their families to live fulfilling and healthy lives.
Mental Health Australia welcomes the urgent recommendations delivered in the interim report, including legislative reforms, supporting the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to clear their backlog of rehabilitation and compensation claims, and improving access to information for serving and ex-serving members and their families.
Veterans and Defence personnel offer incredible service and sacrifice to protect and promote the interests of the Australian community. In turn, the Australian community, through our government, must protect and promote the lifetime wellbeing of veterans.
Australia can do better to support the wellbeing of those who have served our nation, and we look forward to continue working with the Commission and hold hope that the outcomes of this in-depth inquiry will contribute to the substantive reform required, and ultimately the saving of lives.