14 August 2023

New strategy to combat veteran suicide as Royal Commission flags need to learn from failures

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Defence helicopter flyover

The government will develop a new Defence and Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy. Photo: ADF.

The Federal Government has said it will take action to better support and improve the mental health and wellbeing of Defence personnel, veterans and families through the development of a new Defence and Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

The undertaking comes in response to the interim report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which was handed to the Governor-General last August. The royal commission was headed up by chair and former NSW deputy police commissioner Nick Kaldas, and commissioners James Douglas QC and Dr Peggy Brown, and will be ongoing until 2024.

The royal commission’s interim report found that: “… there is an overrepresentation of defence and veteran deaths by suicide in Australia, and … this overrepresentation should be acknowledged and understood to ensure that learnings are made and to prevent future deaths by suicide.”

Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh said he hosted a meeting of mental health professionals to discuss what practical steps were needed to improve the mental health and wellbeing of the broader Defence and veteran community.

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“This forum was the first of a number of consultation opportunities that will not only engage with the Defence and veteran community, families, researchers, peak associations, service providers and ex-service organisations to contribute to the direction of the new joint Defence and Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2024­-2029,” Mr Keogh said in a statement.

He said the strategy would look to encourage positive mental health and wellbeing across the Defence and veteran community, and aimed to improve prevention, early intervention and care initiatives for veterans and families from the day they sign up, to long after they’ve finished their service.

The royal commission highlighted the fact that more than 50 inquiries or reports of relevance have been made into veteran mental health since 2000, and the government of the day had publicly responded to less than half of these.

“It is not through a shortage of reviews or inquiries that this royal commission was called,” the interim report read. “It is through a lack of transformative action to address the findings of those prior reviews and inquiries, and to learn from lessons of the past to inform current and future practices.”

So the pressure will be on the current government and its strategy to address the royal commission’s findings and recommendations with concrete actions.

The new strategy will replace the current Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and National Action Plan 2020‑2023, both of which expire at the end of this year.

A Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) information page said Defence and the DVA would be expected to work together to adopt a coordinated approach to meeting the mental health and wellbeing needs of serving members and veterans during service, transition, and life post-transition.

“The strategy will be designed to align with best practice and respond to emerging priorities during a period of significant reform, with careful consideration of the ongoing work of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide (the royal commission) and to the evolving whole-of-government policy architecture,” it read.

“Defence and DVA will consult widely in the development of the strategy, including with mental health experts, researchers, peak associations, federal, state and territory governments, ex-service organisations, current serving and transitioning members, current Defence Australian Public Service workforce, and veterans and families.”

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Former serving ADF personnel, family members and supporting organisations are invited to complete an online survey as part of the strategy’s development and consultation process.

If this story has caused any discomfort or distress, free and confidential counselling and support are available to all current and former serving ADF personnel and their families through the following services:

  • Open Arms – Veteran & Families Counselling available 24/7 – 1800 011 046
  • Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
  • Kids Help Line – 1800 551 800
  • Suicide Call Back – 1300 659 467
  • MensLine Australia – 1300 789 978

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