Veteran suicide data confirms prevention work is targeting groups most at risk

Veterans' Affairs Minister Andrew Gee says new ADF suicide data confirms importance of the upcoming Defence and Veteran Suicide Royal Commission. Picture: Department of Defence
Veterans' Affairs Minister Andrew Gee says new ADF suicide data confirms importance of the upcoming Defence and Veteran Suicide Royal Commission. Picture: Department of Defence

As new figures on Defence Force suicides are released on Wednesday, veterans' advocates and government advisors say significant work is being done to engage former serving members and their families to prevent suicide.

Between 2001 and 2019, the number of identified Defence and veteran suicides now stands at 1273 individuals based on an expanded pool of data encompassing almost 373,500 men and women who have served over the past 36 years. However, the overall rate and trends have not changed.

Christine Morgan, the Prime Minister's national suicide prevention commissioner, said the new data helps tell the stories of real people who has been lost to suicide, but that was far too many Australians.

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The research, produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and commissioned by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, expands the data available to policymakers by an additional 15 years, capturing those who served since 1985.

After adjusting for age, permanent and reserve men had a lower rate of suicide than the general Australian population, at about half the rate. However, for ex-serving men and women the rate was higher than the general population.

The risk of suicide was most acute for female veterans. With respect to our male veterans, the risk increased were if they were under 30 years old, have five years or less of service or were discharged on medical grounds.

Ms Morgan said these increased numbers emphasised the urgency of work to improve services and support, "to reach out and lean into our veterans".

Gwen Cherne, the department's Veteran Family Advocate, said the new data showed current support efforts were being applied in the areas most in need.

"This report ... reinforces that we're on the right path, and the things DVA, Defence and ex-service organisations have been working on are the right things."

Those areas of focus included establishing a joint transition authority to better support Defence personnel and their families through departure from service, and refocusing support to include the role of families as a protective factor, and the specific cohorts already known to be at risk.

Ms Cherne said it was important for government to keep refining what it was doing and how it was responding to the needs to veterans and families.

Veterans' Affairs Minister Andrew Gee received the AIHW report on Tuesday. The government has also received the final report from the Interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bernadette Boss, which has not yet been made public.

"My priority is putting veterans and their families first, and making sure they are getting the services they need, when and where they need it," Mr Gee said.

"While there has been important national progress in addressing the issue of veteran suicide such as free mental health treatment for life, there is clearly much more to be done and we can't wait for the conclusion of the Royal Commission to get cracking on it."

He highlighted work directed through the department to overhaul and speed up claims processing as it deals with a backlog of claims. Three-monthly milestones have been requested during implementation.

Mr Gee said he had requested Defence provide a timeline to speed-up the implementation of the joint transition authority, a recommendation from the Productivity Commission in 2019, to support ADF members and their families as they transition from military to civilian life.

The Veterans Affairs' department will also harmonise the main three pieces of legislation dealing with veterans' compensation and rehabilitation, which can be confusing for some to understand.

The minister added that the report highlighted the unacceptably high rate of suicide in the Defence and veteran community and the importance of the work of the Royal Commission, which was announced in April and is due to conclude in June 2023.

"Suicide doesn't just affect the individual, it is deeply traumatic for loved ones, families and whole communities. Our nation needs to do everything it can to prevent it," Mr Gee said.

This story Support for veterans and families emphasised as new suicide data reveals risk factors first appeared on The Canberra Times.