Standing up for Canberra

Report into Veteran Suicide long overdue

This is a long overdue and very worthwhile report, and I commend the committee that did such a comprehensive review. 

You can tell how comprehensive the recommendations of this review are. There are very significant recommendations over a broad range of sectors We have 24 recommendations, and they cover everything from the DVA white card through to transition assistance, which is vitally important, and through to the delivery of services from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, as well as the first principles review that my colleague just mentioned.

As the shadow assistant minister for defence, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important report produced by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee. There have been a number of reports over the years into issues addressing the wounded and soldiers returning from conflict. In my time on the Defence Sub-committee of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, we did an extensive review into how well DVA, particularly, was managing the return of wounded or injured soldiers from Afghanistan at that time. That report highlighted a number of significant gaps. One of the most significant was that—despite assurances in the evidence given to that committee that the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs were working closely or they were attempting to improve the connectivity and seamlessness between those agencies to ensure that, when someone was transitioning out of Defence into the DVA environment, it would be disrupted as little as possible—we discovered that there were still significant challenges there and that the seamlessness that was suggested by those officials who were giving evidence didn't exist. This report has highlighted that as well.

Once again, there are still these challenges, particularly in that transition from Defence into the DVA environment. It's still incredibly chaotic in some instances. We have veterans who have left the service and are going through the trauma and the challenges that you face having signed up to be a warrior for your nation and a defender of your nation. Many of them have been through conflict. They have gone from that into this environment where they are a veteran, seemingly with very little support services, not just in terms of career transition arrangements, which this report highlights, but also in terms of mental health support and just financial support.

Quite often there are gaps, and we hear that people aren't getting the support that they need, the financial support that they need. They are in this limbo, in this no-man's-land, and it's for too long, despite the fact that so many reports from Senate committees and joint standing committees have highlighted that transitioning from being a warrior in Defence to a veteran being processed through DVA is still not seamless. This has been highlighted; this has been an issue for a very long time. The fact that we are still having this conversation and that this report highlights that this is still a significant issue is concerning. That's why I welcome this report. As my colleagues have mentioned, it has bipartisan support. It highlights a number of very concerning issues, and I trust that the government will accept these recommendations and address them as soon as possible.

It's tragic, as this report highlights, that so many of our younger ex-serving men are at risk of suicide death when compared to all Australian men of the same age. Ex-serving men aged between 18 and 24 have a suicide rate almost two times as high as for Australian men of the same age. I remember that in my last term the actual suicide rate of ADF members was an issue that was being debated—what was the true figure? Was it higher than the Australian average? These were issues that were debated quite extensively, and, in a way, they delayed any government agency addressing the actual issue. Now we know that ex-serving men aged between 18 and 24 have a suicide rate two times higher, and those aged between 25 and 29 have a suicide rate 1.5 times higher than the Australian male average for those of the same age and that ex-serving men aged between 25 and 29 have a suicide rate of 1.5 times the Australian male average of the same age. As the committee chair said in the foreword of the report:

For modern veterans, it is likely that suicide and self-harm will cause more deaths and injuries for their contemporaries than overseas operational service.

How extraordinary is that! Suicide and self-harm will cause greater injury than actually serving in conflict overseas.

We know that the effort to prevent suicide by our veterans is one of the biggest challenges facing our Australian Defence Force. We know that. It's quite clear that we still have a long way to go to address the stigma around mental health. As beyondblue has said:

People with depression and anxiety, and their family and friends, experience significant levels of stigma and discrimination.

…   …   …

People with depression and anxiety report that the stigma and discrimination they experience may be worse than their mental health condition(s).

We must do better to ensure that veterans and those currently in the ADF who are dealing with depression or anxiety are provided with the appropriate support they require and that they are not stigmatised in any way. It's vitally important. I note that the stigma of actually coming forward and saying, 'I have a depression or anxiety issue,' is a barrier for many of our warriors coming forward and identifying the fact that they need some help.

In the nearly four or five years I've been holding a shadow defence portfolio, I've met many veterans, and, along that course, I've met many serving ADF members. Whenever I meet veterans—young veterans particularly—who have been damaged by what has taken place in conflict, by what they've seen in conflict and by what they've experienced, it breaks my heart. I think about these young men who have been, in many ways, broken. Their self-esteem has gone; their self-confidence has gone.

One of the men I met when I was in Afghanistan was part of a very large team that was looking after the four MPs who were there on a visit to Afghanistan. Years later I again met this young man, who I remembered as being incredibly fit, energetic, effusive, enthusiastic and proud of the work that he was doing. He was a broken man. He was a broken man from the fact that he suffered from PTSD. He had put on a significant amount of weight. He was trying to work his way through the system to get support for a university education from the ADF, and it was a struggle. Not only was he struggling with personal and mental health challenges; he was also going into battle, so to speak, with the actual ADF to try and get some support for him to make the transition out of military service. In Queensland, I met another young man who was, again, very broken and bruised from PTSD. He had had a real struggle in trying to get support for his condition, but he got through it. One of the great joys was seeing him supported by an assistance dog, which was providing great relief for him.

I commend the committee on this report. I commend the courage, bravery and conviction of all those people who made submissions to the inquiry and appeared before the committee. This is a significant issue. These figures are frightening in the fact that, as Jeff Kennett said, our modern veterans are more likely to suicide and self-harm than be injured in conflict. This is a significant challenge for Australia, and we need to address it.