Australia’s veterans affairs minister Andrew Gee says the federal government won’t wait for royal commission findings into suicides before making reforms, following a report calling for action.
Dr Bernadette Boss, the interim national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention, released an early report this week with 41 recommendations.
“To save lives, the Australian government must act with urgency,” Boss said. “Action cannot be delayed until the conclusion of the royal commission.”
Among the recommendations are that Defence should employ uniformed clinical psychologists at all ADF bases and headquarters, potentially also at unit levels, and mandate transition courses for all members leaving the force.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare confirmed this week veterans took their own lives in higher numbers than the general population but found serving personnel had below-average rates of suicide.
Between 2001 and 2019 there were 1273 suicides among people with ADF service, with rates among ex-serving members 24% higher for men than the general population and 102% higher for women.
Boss, who also oversaw the AIHW study, found veterans’ experiences of the compensation system at the Department of Veterans Affairs “unbearably complex” and causing “further harm” during times of distress.
“The system needs to move away from the illness model and promote veterans’ lifetime wellbeing,” Boss said in the report, suggesting the NDIS provided a blueprint.
Responding to the report, Gee said he had directed the department to “overhaul and speed up” its claims processing system and to unify complex compensation legislation.
“We won’t be waiting until the conclusion of the royal commission to get cracking on reform,” he said.
Boss’s report also supports previous findings that the risk of suicide is greater during periods when a service member is transitioning from the forces and afterwards, and recommends more be done to help at this time.
The recommendations include Defence supporting members from their first day of service to prepare for the transition, assisting with their post-military career, and providing peer supporters for one-to-one mentoring.
Glee said he had directed the department to assess Boss’s recommendations for mandatory transition courses and how they could integrate with existing programs.
“I believe the report will make a significant contribution to current and future work being undertaken to improve veterans’ services,” he said.
“I have no doubt the royal commission will also find it extremely useful and helpful.”
The royal commission, announced in April, will provide an interim report in August 2022 and a final report in mid-2023.
The government has maintained Boss is in an interim role and a new commissioner could be appointed after the royal commission or when it recommends the role be formally legislated.
Boss’s report followed 36 private meetings with individual families, defence members and veterans, and 29 round tables with more than 150 ex-service and support organisations.
She acknowledged the department and others were forthcoming with information but said without compulsory powers for her position she relied on people and groups volunteering information.
“Even with the best of intentions, without legislation, organisations have been limited in what information they have been lawfully able to provide me,” Boss said.
“For this important work to be effective it is imperative that the powers envisaged by the proposed legislation be available.”
If you, or someone you know, need support, you can contact:
- Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Open Arms (current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families are able to seek this free and confidential support) – 1800 011 046
- ADF Mental Health All-hours Support Line (for current serving ADF personnel and their families) – 1800 628 036.
- Safe Zone Support (for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families) – 1800 142 072. When you call Safe Zone Support, you do not need to identify yourself if you do not want to.
- Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636