Mental Health services within the ADF

I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement on this critical issue and I thank, welcome and commend the assistant minister on his statement this afternoon. Like the assistant minister, over the weekend I too commemorated the end of Operation Slipper. It was an honour to welcome home the 34,500 personnel who served in Afghanistan and the Middle East. It was a time to remember the dedication, courage and sacrifice of those who served. It was also a time to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice —those 41 Australians—and to provide support to their families and friends. 

It was also a time to pledge our support to the wounded and to all those who have come back to Australia forever changed by what they have experienced. That is why I am standing here today, pledging our support once again.

The mental health of our serving and ex-serving Defence Force members must be a top priority for both government and the ADF. It is impossible to exaggerate what we owe to our service personnel and their families. In thanking them for their sacrifices and showing our gratitude for the work they do in securing our nation and preserving our precious democracy, we must ensure that we provide the highest standard of care for them upon their return. We must do all we can to achieve the best mental health management within the ADF to reduce the risk of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and, ultimately, suicide.

As the assistant minister has said, since January 2000 there have been 106 full-time serving Defence members who are suspected or confirmed to have died by suicide. While there are no accurate statistics about how many former members have committed suicide, recent reports claim that almost 200 Afghanistan war veterans have taken their own lives, and another 2,600 have been confirmed as suffering from PTSD. More needs to be done to address this lack of information. As the assistant minister said, one death by suicide is too many.

PTSD is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in Australia. The Australian Centre for the Posttraumatic Mental Health says that five to 10 per cent of Australians are likely to experience PTSD in their lives, while up to 12 per cent of serving and ex-serving members will be affected by PTSD in any given year. The Department of Veterans' Affairs says that 1,713 veterans of recent conflicts are suffering from PTSD. Of those, 955 are veterans of either Afghanistan or Iraq. However, in reality, this number is likely to be much higher. Many sufferers often develop symptoms years after their service, and many more remain undetected because they never seek the help they need to treat their PTSD. Major General John Cantwell, the former commander of the Australian forces in the Middle East says of Australia's withdrawal from Afghanistan:

There is a wave of sadness coming away, and the system—DVA and Defence—needs to be ready for it.

As the problem grows, so must our response. That is why I welcomed the assistant minister's strong commitment to providing the best possible care to our servicemen and women, and I commend him again for that. His commitment builds on the work Labor did in government to reform mental health services for current and former members of the ADF and their families. Our 2013-14 budget contained a record $12.5 billion investment in the veterans affairs portfolio. Part of this record investment was $26.4 million for new mental health initiatives, which have been outlined in our 2013 white paper. These initiatives included extending non-liability health cover for certain conditions to former members of the ADF, and expanding access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to veterans involved in high risk peacetime service and their families, as well as to families of veterans killed in operational service.

In 2009, we also commissioned Professor David Dunt to conduct an independent review to benchmark current ADF mental health support services against best practice, including the transition process to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and to determine the extent to which mental health services met the needs of serving and transitioning ADF members. Professor Dunt made 52 recommendations to reform and improve ADF mental health programs, as well as the transition services of both Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

The Department of Defence states that as of 18 March this year, nearly half of the recommendations have been implemented, including completion of the 2010 Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study, and the development of the 2011 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

As you can see, positive steps have been taken to understand and support those with mental health issues. In particular, progress has been made in terms of streamlining the DVA and Defence processes, and streamlining the information on injured soldiers. I was involved in the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade Defence Subcommittee review into wounded soldiers. One of the major issues that came from that inquiry, and the hearings that we had, was the lack of seamlessness between DVA and Defence, so it is great to hear that progress is being made in that area, but more needs to be done. As policy makers, we have to do more, and we have to do better.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and commend the government on its $5 million Transition and Wellbeing Research Program, which was launched in June last year. A vital part of improving mental health services for our serving and ex-serving personnel is understanding their mental health needs. The program will, for the first time, provide a comprehensive picture of the mental health and wellbeing status of members transitioning from full-time service.

I would also like to acknowledge the minister 's and the Chief of the Defence Force's efforts to rapidly expand the current mental health screening process to include all personnel , including those leaving and not just those who have been deployed. It is pleasing to see the minister and assistant minister have acknowledged the important role that families play in recognising the early signs of mental illness . We commend the work of the Defence Community Organisation, because I know that they have been playing a very important role in this in addition to Defence Families Association.

Labor also supports the government's work in supporting new initiatives like the ADF Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills Program. While it is important to acknowledge government-run programs and commend government-run programs aimed at improving the mental health of our personnel, it is also important to recognise the non-government organisations working in this space. Last week, I was honoured to attend Soldier On's official reopening of the Robert Poate Reintegration and Recovery Centre. Soldier On is a Canberra based organisation that supports our physically and psychologically wounded soldiers. The new facilities in Crace, unfortunately not in my electorate, allow Soldier On to continue its vitally important work, particularly in helping our wounded soldiers transition from the ADF and into the next stage of their career.

Another community organisation doing great work in this space is Young Diggers. Young Diggers is working to change the culture of stigma and shame that still exists in the ADF and that sadly results in returning soldiers ignoring the signs of mental health issues and other injuries. This stigma is a significant cultural problem within the ADF, and it is pleasing to see the assistant minister listing this as a top priority. There must be clear direction from government, the minister , the assistant minister, the Chief of the Defence Force and all the way down the chain of command that there will be no detrimental impact on your career if you are seeking mental health treatment. We know that early identification, diagnosis and intervention by trained professionals provide the best outcome for those dealing with mental illness. The ADF needs to shift the stigma around mental health, as does the Australian population more broadly.

As I said, on the weekend I attended the Operation Slipper parade and the memorial service at the War Memorial. It was a wonderful event. It was wonderful to see so many—I think it was 2,000 plus—of our service personnel from the Navy, Army and Air Force, and members of the AFP. What was particularly touching for me was to see the civilians, those from a range of government agencies who served in a range of capacities over many years, marching as well in the parade. It just underscored the fact that operations like Defence have integrated workforces. Civilian Defence staff are critical to the frontline operations of the ADF. They provide high-level technical skills. Those who served also need mental health to be a priority for them as well and a support and assistance to them.

The government plays a vital role in maintaining and enhancing the wellbeing —physical, financial and emotional— of current and former ADF members and their families. It is pleasing that in recent years there has been an increased awareness of the effects of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and PTSD, and an increased awareness of issues surrounding suicide rates amongst current and former servicemen and women. It is also pleasing to see the ADF has put an enormous amount of effort into improving the understanding of and screening for mental health conditions, particularly PTSD, as well as in preventing and treating such conditions. It has been particularly over the last six years. But as the assistant minister has said, and as I say, there is more work to be done. There is much more work to be done.

We must ensure that the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Defence are adequately funded to provide the rollout of their many excellent programs. And, as we have both discussed today, we must ensure that the systems that they have are talking to each other, are working together and are working seamlessly. We must also acknowledge and support the great work of community organisations like the RSLs, Soldier On, Young Diggers, the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia, the Vietnam Veterans Association and Mates4Mates, as well as the DCI and the DFA. We must constantly work to reduce the stigma and normalise mental health issues within our Defence Force, because it is a shared national mission to provide our serving and ex-serving personnel, and those who have served our nation in a military and a civilian capacity with the best possible care. Again, I commend the assistant minister for his statement this afternoon.

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