The Way Forward – Education & Improvement

When serving in the Australian Defence Force, in particular the Australian Army, it is well known that speaking up and asking for help with any form of mental illness; be it depression, PTSD or anxiety is frowned upon.  While the ADF will openly claim in the media it is supportive of all struggling servicemen and servicewomen the truth is: asking for help is a guaranteed way to stall or even end your career in uniform.  There are exceptions to this and that involves extremely supportive units that have a long history with dealing with members that have been wounded or are living with a mental illness.

I’ve written about my depression and anxiety previously on my blog.  For years I hid the truth from all but my family and closest friends; and even then I wasn’t completely forthcoming.  One of the reasons I chose to be so open about my experiences, difficulties and struggles was so that others would know that they are not alone.

On two occasions in two different units I approached the senior Soldier and asked for help.  Both times I was rebutted and told to “harden the fuck up” and “get out if you can’t handle it” respectively.  The main role of this position is Soldier’s welfare.  These two members failed me and numerous others that approached them for assistance in their time of need.  I still harbour a great deal of resentment to these people and while my career stalled for a period of time; theirs flourished and my protests over their inaction fell on deaf ears.

The ADF was going through a period of transition with it’s mental health initiatives and sadly I and others from this time fell through the cracks and decided that separation from the ADF was the best way to escape the increasing bureaucracy and feeling of helplessness.  My experience with this issue is not uncommon, but the system and processes in place are getting better.

It is for this reason I am so passionate about the welfare of this new generation of veterans that have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This week the Department of Veterans Affairs contacted me after my my post regarding my experiences with them started trending on Twitter.  They admit things need to improve and they are working on it and need people who are willing to speak up about the problems in order to identify the shortfalls and improve the current processes.

If things don’t rapidly improve Australia will start experiencing what the USA is currently dealing with; the increase of returned veterans committing suicide.  In just over six months, seventeen returned Australian veterans have killed themselves.  I served with three of these young soldiers and that saddens and angers me greatly.  I ponder over what drove them to such despair and helplessness that to them the only solution was the most final.

Blame for these deaths cannot be placed on any one person, Unit, Service or Government Department.  I would like nothing more than to point the finger at someone and scream that they have blood on their hands.  But this will not happen.  There is however a solution; and it is a very simple one.  Education and Improvement.

Education of not only the support services available to returned veterans but also education for the wider public that these people need their support and that there is no shame attached to mental illness.

Improvement is needed in both the attitude of the people of Australia and Government Departments and improvement in the services available to returned veterans.

Time is needed for these changes to occur but with the Afghanistan campaign drawing to a close and more than a decade passing since Australians in uniform first stepped foot in the Middle East; time is running out.  Action is needed sooner rather than later to stem the leak before the dam wall breaks and the already struggling system cannot cope with the flood of demand.

The Elephant In The Room – The Department of Veterans Affairs

During the week numerous media outlets across Australia ran an article about the Department of Veterans Affairs and its inability and ineptness at not being able to deal with the increase of servicemen and servicewomen calling out for help.

Firstly, let me say that I have dealt with DVA on more than one occasion and not just for my own personal circumstances. Secondly, I would rather smash my face against a brick wall than have to relive those initial experiences ever again. To claim a person’s anxiety and depression is “not severe enough” is not only insulting it is downright dangerous. It is a fact that returned veterans have taken their own lives in recent times as a direct result from the helplessness they feel from having to deal with the bureaucracy of DVA.

There is a huge increase in returned veterans asking for help and submitting claims to DVA. It is also very true that DVA is understaffed, underfunded and undertrained. However, to not be prepared for this increase in workload is preposterous. What the hell did the Government, ADF, and DVA expect when you send men and women overseas to war and not provide them with adequate support services upon return to Australia?

It is true that many veterans do not experience what some would define as “the horror of war”, however this does not lessen the negative impact on mental health that being away from your family and friends for up to ten months can have. Combine this stress with being wounded or having your brothers-in-arms injured or killed and you have a person that is walking time bomb.

Now imagine you now have to prove to a Government Department that you are struggling to cope and you need help. Put aside the compensation claims that DVA receives; the process to access support services is appalling. For veterans in uniform you can wait up to six weeks to see a Defence psychologist. You can of course call a counselling call centre, but this in reality is only a bandaid solution for a very real and long term problem.

For veterans that have left the ADF this process is even more difficult. To put it into perspective I stopped attempting to access support services through DVA as it was becoming more common to have appointments cancelled at the last minute after waiting six weeks for the date to actually arrive. I am one of the lucky ones; I have the support of my family and friends; in particular from my Vietnam Veteran Father.

Usually I try to keep my posts about such subject matter more objective; however this is an issue that is literally killing returned veterans! The Department of Veterans Affairs has not learned from the past and its legacy of incompetence in providing adequate support services and streamlined processes continues. To claim that they are improving is not even remotely good enough. The Vietnam War ended almost forty years ago and this inept Government Department is still making the very same mistakes it made back then.