Mental Health Stigma, The ADF – An Ongoing Cycle

I sit here typing this with my infant daughter asleep in my arms. For me the days, months and years since I was at the lowest point in my life have been a road to recovery. For many others this isn’t the case.

This week we farewelled another Australian Soldier who had succumbed to the emotional wounds he suffered years ago while serving his county in Afghanistan. The reasons why he never recovered from his invisible injuries may never be known; but the fact still remains he is another lost to a battle that still continues in the minds of many. A never ending war of light versus dark, good versus evil and ultimately life versus death.

Four years ago I lost this very battle. Four years ago I found myself alone in a dark hole I couldn’t escape from so I accepted what I believed to be the fate I deserved. Despite the odds stacked firmly against me I am here today. The reasons for this are solely due to the unwavering support from my family and friends.

When I hear of an Australian serviceperson taking their own life I feel a deep sadness for not only them but for their family as well. When a person decides to take their own life there is nothing you can do to stop them; nothing. This of course does nothing to comfort them in their grief; but knowing a tortured soul is finally at rest should.

I don’t pretend to know everything about mental health issues, mental health support or suicide. I know only of what others have shared with me and from my own experiences. And one of the most harrowing aspects to this silent battle is the ever present stigma that is attached to admitting you have a mental health illness.

Support, like the causes of mental illness, is very much an “experiences may vary” scenario. I have heard of support avenues being offered that were exceptional, some mediocre and some downright dismissive and a catalyst for suicide attempts. My own recovery was made up of all three; although the bad experiences often overshadow the good.

My initial experiences with asking for support from the ADF reads like a how-to-guide on rejection, dismissal and victim blaming. The desired effect for me to shut up and go away worked; albeit long enough for it to become someone else’s problem.

I don’t begrudge the ADF as an institution for this; but a stigma against mental health, especially PTSD and depression, still exists within the upper ranks. My time in the Australian Army ended two and half years ago. I was happy with what I had achieved as a Soldier; especially on operations. If I had my time again I would definitely sign up to serve, but in saying that I would certainly do some things very differently.

In regards to my mental health support, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have accepted the dismissive and intimidating culture of the SNCO’s and Warrant Officers I encountered. I experienced a level of bullying from people of certain ranks that should have known better. The attitude of some pushed me over the edge and directly attributed to my attempt at ending my own life. I am still angry and bitter at how I was treated and how I didn’t act to better protect myself. But when one is so mentally exhausted everyday activities such as eating become a chore, so the seemingly simple act of speaking up for yourself just does not happen.

This stigma still exists and is still prevalent within the ADF. Not a week goes by that I don’t get asked for advice and help from a still serving friend on how to deal with someone acting as a roadblock to their recovery. Sadly, more often than not, this person will be a SNCO or Warrant Officer in a position that requires them to be responsible for Soldier’s welfare; something that they clearly fail at.

I don’t know how the ADF can fix this in the long term, but I do know that the majority of SNCO and Warrant Officers are incredibly supportive to mental health support. One thing that the Service Chiefs and CDF could try is taking action against those that hinder Soldier’s recovery by denying their access to support, bullying those at risk and continuing to deny illnesses such as PTSD and depression exist.

Before I left the ADF I named two Warrant Officer Class One’s, both RSM’s and two Warrant Officer Class Two’s both SSM’s in a minute to the Chief of Army as habitual bullies who made physical and psychological threats to me and others; yet no action was taken.

It is the cycle of generational suicide in the ADF that still continues that proves the current system for mental health support, reporting and ongoing care is not yet good enough.

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Trois Etapes 2014 Update

In less than a week Team Soldier On will be in France preparing for the Trois Etapes.  The journey so far has been a tough challenge for all riders with some injuries, a car VS cyclist incident, two training camps and thousands of hours spent on our bikes.

The ride will be tough and but with the support of our family, friends and supporters Team Soldier On will power up those big climbs in the French Pyrenees.

Team SO Info

Soldier On TE Jersey

 

I Am Soldier On Cycling

Soldier On Cycling is about like minded people who support Soldier On and enjoy riding.

Some of us have served, some of us haven’t; some of us ride for recovery, some of us ride for fun.  But we all share the commitment to ensuring Australian veterans are afforded the support and help they deserve.

 

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JetBlack 12 Hour 2014 Race Wrap Up

The JetBlack 12 Hour at James Estate Winery was the first road trip/short holiday that included our new addition, Celeste, tagging along.

I signed up for this race a number of months ago and before I knew I was heading to France with Team Soldier On to race in the Trois Etapes in August.

I’ve enjoyed the past few Rocky Trail events and this was guaranteed to be one of their best.  Martin and Juliane are amazing people that put on mountain bike events that are second to none.  So to say I was looking forward to riding around the James Estate Winery was an understatement.

But before I was able to ride the grinding fire-roads and flowing singletrack I had to move the family 550km north of Canberra; not an easy feat with a 5 week old.  Many pit stops followed with some roadside feeds; but finally we arrived at our cottage B&B near Denman.

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.:Kate got her own room:.

We spent Friday morning admiring the Hunter Valley before heading to James Estate Winery to register for the next days race.

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.:Not a bad view at James Estate:.
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.:The climb through the vineyard – suprisingly difficult:.
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.:Rider number 31:.

As we weren’t camping at the winery with the other Bermers; the offer to have dinner with the Hills down the road was too good to refuse.

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.:Better than camping food that’s for sure:.

The next day I prepared my bike, bottles and food and drove out to the event centre with family in tow.

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.:Mum & bub – errr polar bear:.
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.:Soldier On & The Berm together at another race:. (SPOILER: Two would finish, two would not)
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.:Last minute snuggles:.

The race started as planned, Chad in the front of the middle pack and a slow but steady start to warm up; and warm up I did.  Despite the single digit temperatures I was soon shedding my arm warmers and wishing I wasn’t wearing my knee warmers.

The initial fire-road was a grinding battle against sand, rolling resistance and a gradual incline into the singletrack.  The singletrack was a mix of sweeping tracks and flowing corners with so many drop-offs I lost count.  My normal aversion to A-Lines in races was soon overcome by the fact I missed the B-Lines each time and still managed to keep my bike rubber side down.

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.:Dusty and getting dustier:.

As I rounded my second lap of the 11.5km course I was suitably warmed up and feeling quite good.

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.:Transition:.

By my fourth lap I was feeling a great deal of discomfort in my left hip and upper glutes.  The same feeling I got during the Soldier On Training Camp at Tweed Heads.

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.:My pit crew:.

I headed out on my fifth lap knowing full well that it would be my last, my hip was starting to hurt and my lower back was well and truly seized up.  Every-time I left the saddle the pain grew more intense.  So I put my final effort into the final climb and descent into transition before calling it quits for another year.

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.:Long flowing golden locks in the breeze:.

At the end of the day I wasn’t disappointed with my effort, I knew full well I wasn’t going to give 100% due to what was at stake in the coming weeks with the Trois Etapes.  Instead I went on a holiday with my family and went for a little ride in between.


A huge congratulations to Bermers Alyssa (3rd place in Women’s Elites) and the Pedal 4 Pierce team (1st place in Mixed 4’s)

TSO Training Camp – Tweed Heads

The month of June was incredibly hectic for me.  My job decided it wanted to try and take over my life and then my daughter, Celeste, decided she wanted to enter the world.  Only one of the those events was a priority in my life and it definitely wasn’t my job. My training as a result suffered and I barely managed to get a handful of short rides under my tyres before our second Team Soldier On training camp came around. The second training camp was based out of Kingscliff, just south of Tweed Heads near the NSW/QLD border over the weekend of 28-29 June 2014 .  The plan was simple; coach Scott Sunderland was going to make us climb some hills and ride some big kilometres akin to what we will be facing in France for the Trois Etapes. I don’t enjoy flying and certainly don’t enjoy flying with an expensive bicycle packed inside an expensive bike bag that screams “stack as much heavy crap on me as possible”.  While the flights to Coolangatta went off without a hitch (top effort QANTAS) – the flights home came very close to being labelled a cluster-f**k (thanks VIRGIN Australia) complete with delayed/cancelled flights and high-end bicycles being sent to the wrong state and being ignored by the Virgin airport staff!

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.:Goodbye Sydney Airport:.

After arriving at the Peppers Salt Resort & Spa at Kingscliff we headed off to the local restaurant strip for dinner before heading back to our rooms to ready our bikes for the next day’s riding.

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.:Bikes ‘carefully’ stacked in the van for the first day of riding:.

On Saturday we set off about 20 minutes out of Kingscliff with coach Scott following us in the support vehicle and photog Matt zooming past us in the search for optimal photo locations.

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.:Team Soldier OnRiding around the Gold Coast Hinterland:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

The ride started easily enough with a few short climbs before suddenly becoming a decent 8km climb followed by some very sketchy (for me) descents.  I was definitely in the red zone early on in the ride and was finding it very hard to regulate my breathing and lower my heart-rate.

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.:Slowly but surely, up the winding road we climb with Scott close behind:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Eventually what goes up must come down … Thankfully:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

The months of training was certainly evident in the other guys, but as the ride progressed I knew I wasn’t keeping up.  Some more sketchy decents saw our driver Bruce (this time on a bike) overshoot a corner and meet the bushland up and close.

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.:The views would have been more impressive if we were able to take the time to enjoy them:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

As the day was drawing to a close and we were heading back to Kingscliff, I was steadily dropping off the pace and eventually pulled over and jumped in the SAG wagon with Matt.

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.:My bike having a lay down, just like I wanted to do:.

The evening culminated with a group dinner and short presentation to coach Scott.

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.:Thank you Scott Sunderland – cyclist/coach/ball buster:.

Sunday saw us step off from the hotel nice and early for a brisk ride before tackling some more climbs.  I pulled up reasonably well from the day before and was looking forward to some more riding.

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.:Ready to roll:.

The morning air was cool and very nice to ride in.  We eased into our first 20km at a nice quick pace with all riders taking turns at the front.

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.:Such an easy pace Dan found the time to flex for the camera:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

At around the 35km mark I knew I was in trouble.  In just two short days I had ridden further and harder than I had in the past three weeks.  My troublesome knee wasn’t the issue this time; it was my hip.  I had ridden past being uncomfortable and was now experiencing some fairly acute pain in my hip and glutes.  I made the hard decision to stop riding and once again jump inside the SAG wagon with Matt.

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.:Not quite happy/not quite upset/Just very disappointed:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

I watched the other guys ride from inside the van as Matt drove the van and took photos.  I was quite disappointed in myself for not riding through the pain; but considering I’ve just spent a week of intense physio and rest I’m glad I didn’t injure myself any further.

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.:The rest of team with Bruce continuing on with the ride:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Oh look it’s another photo oppertunity! – The greyhounds made it to the top of another climb:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

At the end of the weekend we were all tired (some sorer than others) but more determined for the Trois Etapes in August.

Please support us we head towards this once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness and much needed funds for Soldier On.

Team Soldier On Trois Etapes Fundraising Page

Trois Etapes 

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