Senate Inquiry Mental Health

Australian Government Response to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Report

Mental Health of Australian Defence Force Members and Veterans

~ September 2016




The Government welcomes the opportunity to provide a response to the Senate Inquiry Report on the mental health of Australian Defence Force (ADF) members and veterans, and acknowledges the useful work and recommendations of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee in conducting this Inquiry.

This Government Response sets out the Government’s view on the 25 recommendations made in the Report, including the Minority Report recommendations, and also indicates how the Government intends to address the important task of supporting mental health of current and former ADF members. Whilst the funding and operational arrangements vary between the Department of Defence (Defence) and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), arrangements are in place across both agencies for current and former serving veterans to access mental health care when they need it. Through treatment and rehabilitation, Defence and DVA can assist individuals to recover, continue their service within the ADF or return to a meaningful and productive life in the broader Australian community with the recognition and support they deserve following service to their country.

Military service and mental health As noted to the Committee, military service is a unique experience, both for the personnel who serve and their families who support them. Benefits of service include the protective mental health effects of identity, purpose and camaraderie. Military service also involves sometimes being put in harm’s way in the course of duty, and the occupational risks of service can include hardship, stress or danger, whilst on operational deployment, in training environments, providing disaster and humanitarian support or during border protection tasks. Just like all citizens, there are also the normal challenges of life like career changes, moving house, relationship breakdowns, grief and loss, and growing older that can impact upon mental health and wellbeing. For service personnel leaving the ADF, the transition into civilian life can also be a time of significant adjustment.

It is normal for people to react to risks or challenging events in their lives but sometimes these reactions are a sign of mental health concerns, particularly if the reactions persist or interfere with the ability to engage in normal life. In some cases, reactions or symptoms can emerge many years after an event. Defence and DVA’s systems must cater for those who experience mental health concerns while they serve, those leaving the military with a mental health condition, as well as for those whose condition develops many years after service.

Our essential early intervention message for current and ex-serving ADF members is as follows: if you or your family or friends are worried about how you are coping or feeling, then seek help early. We know that the earlier people seek help, the better their prospects for earlier and more successful recovery. If the situation does start to become overwhelming, then seek help straight away. Both Defence and DVA offer comprehensive systems of support that can help you and your family.

This support is ready and available to provide help to those that require it, where and when it is needed, from both Defence and DVA. Should treatment need to be accessed, then both Defence and DVA have the services and funding to make sure it can be provided.

The Government also acknowledges that we need to continue seeking ways to improve our mental health response, in line with advancing knowledge and improved mental health responses.

Going forward

The Government has committed to increase Defence funding by $29.9 billion over the next ten years and to deliver on the 2013 election commitment to return Defence spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product within the decade. This includes support for ADF personnel by providing them with the advanced training, modern equipment and the health care that they deserve.

Tackling the mental health challenges for veterans and their families is also a pillar of the Government’s plan for veterans’ affairs. Most recently, this includes the Government commitments to fund $6 million for the Phoenix Australia Institute and $3.1 million for further extensions of access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. The Phoenix Australia Institute will work collaboratively with experts to improve the quality of mental health care for Australia’s veterans. It will achieve this by providing expert clinical advice to practitioners across Australia and by conducting cutting edge research into effective treatments and the mechanisms underlying recovery.

Access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) will be further extended to include:

  • family members of current and former ADF members who die by suicide or reported suicide
  • siblings of ADF members killed in service related incidents
  • Defence Force Abuse Taskforce complainants and their families
  • adult children (over 26) of post-Vietnam War veterans.

These initiatives build on the measure in the 2016–17 Budget, to provide funding of $46.4 million, to extend non-liability mental health care. This will expand eligibility for treatment for certain mental health conditions to all current and former permanent members of the ADF, irrespective of how long or when they served, or the type of service. Conditions covered by these arrangements are posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, alcohol use disorder, and substance use disorder.

Suicide prevention for serving and former serving ADF members at risk and support to the families who have been affected by the tragedy of suicide remains a high priority for the Government. The Government’s current suicide prevention strategy includes training to assist at-risk individuals, programs to build resilience, self-help and educational materials, a 24-hour support line, and access to clinical services. The Government is continuing to invest in initiatives to prevent suicide among current and former serving personnel and support those affected by it. As part of the 2016-17 Budget, funding of $1 million has been provided to continue the suicide awareness and prevention workshops and to pilot an alternative approach to suicide prevention in the veteran community. This is in addition to the $187 million a year that the Government already spends in relation to veteran mental health.

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