The real cost of serving for your country

There is an urgent need for cultural reform within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to address their systemic failures and misconduct, and for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) to provide better support to veterans, says Flinders University.

A new report ‘Mapping Service and Transition to Self-Harm and Suicidality’ has made 18 recommendations to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on how to better protect male and female ex-service members from self-harm and suicide.

“Data on self-harm and suicide among ex-service members shows that both male and female ex-service members are more likely to take their lives than members of the general population,” says lead author Professor Ben Wadham.

“Our report explored how and why some ex-service personnel reach points of despair and suicidality, whilst others find resilience and hope in their lives. We found that the process of transitioning into and out of military service, as well deployment, can all lead to self-harm and suicidality – and that more needs to be done by the ADF and DVA to support them,” says Professor Wadham

The recommendations are based on 113 life course interviews with ADF members and family members of ex-serving ADF members who took their lives. The principle focus of the research was the effects of military culture, military institutional abuse and DVA delay and denial in managing post-service health and wellbeing.

“Of the 113 interview participants, 41 reported thinking about taking their life (12 women and 29 men), and 22 attempted to take their life (5 women and 17 men). We interviewed nine families of male ex-service members who had taken their own lives,” the report says.

There is now a substantial body of international literature highlighting the mental health issues and prevalence of self-harm and suicide experienced by veterans (both current and former serving military personnel) associated with their service.

Professor Ben Wadham Credit: Flinders Foundation

By its very nature, service in the military poses potentially high risks of exposure to physical and psychological trauma. But some of the lesser-known risks include the profound effects of adjusting to life as a service member, the challenges of service at home and deployment abroad – all within a hierarchical and command-and-control culture. There was also clear evidence of military institutional abuse, and negligible duty of care by the ADF and the DVA.

Professor Wadham says that when an institution is geared to equip every member with the capacity to prosecute violence, it generates the potential for violence within the rank.

“Policy, leadership, and culture can remediate this potential, but the institution and its leaders need to acknowledge this in the first instance. To date, this remediation has not been achieved, and military institutional abuse continues.”

The report concluded that the ADF has not yet created the institutional context to meet its duty of care to serving members and there needs to be a shift towards community-based and respectful martial institutions that retain a managed and judicious use of violence, when necessary.

“There have been many reviews and inquiries since 1970 on military cultural issues, however these inquiry recommendations have not achieved adequate reform. On this basis, it is important to question the extent to which the ADF can address these challenges internally,” says Professor Wadham.

“We found that independent scrutiny is required to ensure that the ADF maintain proximity to wider community standards to support the health and wellbeing of its members.”

Acknowledgements:  The report was authored by Professor Ben Wadham, Associate Professor James Connor, Dr Kellie Toole and Professor Emma Thomas, with research support from Dr Matthew Firth, Dr Karen Bird, Emily Haines, and Dr Elaine Waddell. The research and report would not be possible without the participants who courageously told their stories with a desire to help other veterans with similar experiences. This report was funded by the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

The research in this report complements, and is supported by, existing international research in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America. This research scaffolds the earlier groundbreaking government funded inquiry by Rumble, McKean and Pearce entitled A Review Into Allegations of Physical, Sexual, and Other Abuse in the ADF, produced in 2011.82.

Open Door Initiative: The Open Door: Understanding and Supporting Service Personnel and their Families research initiative at Flinders University is an Australasian research hub that brings together veterans, scholars and practitioners together around key research, service provision  and policy/legislation initiatives. Open Door is connected to other veteran research hubs across the ‘Five Eye’ nations. Associate Professor Wadham and Professor Lawn are directors of the Open Door Initiative.

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