Veterans struggling with life after service

Veteran support service Soldier On assists ex-service men and women with their transition out of the defence force. Photo Taylah Broadley.
More needs to be done to support ex-ADF servicemen and women and their mental health. Taylah Broadley reports.

More needs to be done to support ex-servicemen and women and their mental health as they transition from the Australian Defence Force, says psychologist and Army veteran Matt Robinson.

Robinson, 37, who works as a psychologist for veteran support service Soldier On, says the defence force needs to be connecting service men and women with veteran support services before they leave.

“We have the services available, but perhaps it’s more about having social integrations services, making the pathway easier for people to find those services,” he says.

Robinson, who served in the Navy before transferring to the Army, says that “being in the defence force is a big part of [a veterans] life for a long time…so when they leave and that’s taken away from them…their mental health can be at risk…because it is a really difficult process in transitioning.”

This is a common struggle among veterans, says Robinson, and one of the contributors to the high rates of suicide among veterans.

A report conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that the rate of suicide among ex-service men was 13 per cent higher than the overall population, particularly among young men.

This is an issue that the Government has addressed with $350 million allocated to veteran’s services in the 2017 Federal budget, with most of that money being put toward mental health services.

Minister for Veterans Affairs Dan Tehan says $9.8 million of this money will be put towards “pilot[ing] new approaches to suicide prevention and improv[ing] care and support available to veterans”.

Veterans struggling with life after service
Minister for Veterans Affairs Dan Tehan

This includes running a Suicide Prevention Trial Site that focuses on veterans’ mental health in Townsville.

“This will be one of 12 innovative, front-line trial sites in our fight against suicide which will improve our understanding of the challenges and help develop best-practice services,” the Minister says.

While “no two cases [of suicide] are the same,” says Robinson, “mental health is certainly a factor in all.”

Dr Richard Cash, a senior clinical psychologist at Phoenix Australia, Centre for Post Traumatic Health, says: “We need to know more about rates of suicidal behaviour and I think there hasn’t been enough work done until relatively recently in terms of understanding what happens when people transition from defence and how best to engage them in mental health treatment.

“We need to improve the handover from defence health and mental health services to veteran health and mental health services, to better prepare veterans for that period of transition, which can be geographically, and socially impacting on people.”

According to Dr Cash, the difficulties of transitioning out of the defence force can lead to a “fairly complex mixture of factors”.

These include a “loss of identity and role, that involves the transition out of a ‘family’, and having to cope with… transitioning careers, and learning to navigate the community systems”, severely impacting their mental health, says Dr Cash.

One of the most common mental health issues among veterans, according to Robinson, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“By the sheer nature of what our guys are exposed to, deployments overseas, and even training – more recently there have been two deaths during training for the defence force… absolutely [veterans are] at a high risk of developing PTSD.”

Young veterans are also at a high risk for developing adjustment disorders, says Robinson.

“It looks and feels like a depression or an anxiety, but it comes at a time in life when a person is adjusting to a new phase in life,” he says.

When a person is transitioning from the defence force, they’re also transitioning into a new way of life; one where their diet is no longer monitored, they are no longer required to exercise routinely, and they have left their social group.

They are also no longer required to receive regular health checks and mental health treatment if necessary.

“When you’re in the military… there are a lot of good supports in place. We have psychologists that work within the military, there are health services that do regular check ups, and there are regular suicide awareness briefs,” says Robinson. “But that’s not there when you get out, and everyone becomes responsible for their own health.”

Another factor is the ever-present stigma in the defence force, says Dr Cash.

“There is still a cultural stigma against identifying that you’re not doing well with your mental health and mental help seeking, that makes it a lot harder to seek help,” he says.

The help seeking has been made a lot easier, thanks to the Federal Budget.

“In this year’s budget we made treatment for all mental health conditions free for anyone who has served one day in the full-time ADF,” the Minister says.

“The $33.5 million expansion of the non-liability health care program to cover all mental health conditions recognises that the earlier a veteran gets treatment, the better their health and other outcomes.”

This is key, says Robinson, who from first hand experience knows how difficult it is to transition out of the defence force.

“I’m probably one of the very fortunate ones that could move into a trade, being psychology, and I had a lot of good friends and family and support, but even with all the good structures in place, leaving the army was probably one of the most difficult times of my life,” says Robinson.

“I see every day how difficult it can be for guys who are more specifically trained as soldiers, which isn’t a very transferable skill for the general population to integrate back into society.”

For a lot of veterans, having that support ready for them when they get out is essential to their recovery, says Robinson.

“We need to focus on catching people as they transfer out from the defence force…rather than waiting until people are 10 years out and the problems are deeply manifested there.”