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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