Military people know it as “warrior culture”, a macho attitude that permeates throughout the Australian Defence Force. It breeds tough soldiers, sailors and airmen, who are trained to not complain and just get on with the job, despite the constant threat of life and death situations.

Part of that culture means shutting up about mental health problems. “There is a warrior culture encultured in to you,” Steve Ager, an Australian Army veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, told Crikey (read his story here). “And that old warrior culture gets you through. It’s often five to 10 years after an incident that it comes out that you’ve got an issue.”

An anonymous navy veteran told Crikey: “A lot of people suffering from depression would keep quiet, the conditions attached spell the end of your career. If you display or get picked up on having a mental health problem, the action they’ll take is that you’re not fit to stay in and you need to get discharged.”

We hear a lot about the death toll from Australia’s war involvement (in the decade-long Afghanistan war, 39 Australian soldiers have been killed) and also about the severely wounded (249 Australian troops have been wounded in action in Afghanistan). But what about the wounds that can’t be seen — and can be just as damaging?

Today Crikey launches Battle Scars, a series examining post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues among veterans. In the coming days we’ll share the stories of veterans who have battled themselves, both during and after their time in the military. We’ll talk to the the psychologists who developed new programs after realising the ones designed after the Vietnam war weren’t working for today’s veterans. We interview the Department of Veterans’ Affairs about its role in supporting the mental health of veterans. Plus, we speak to the families left to deal with the consequences when it all falls apart.

One in five serving ADF personnel reported in a 2010 study (the most recent military mental health data available) said they suffered a mental disorder in the previous 12 months. Around 8.1% of serving ADF personnel who had been deployed suffer from PTSD and more than half of the ADF has battled anxiety, alcohol or affective disorders at some stage in their life.

“Younger vets are turning up with much more intense anger and its much closer to the surface,” Doug Brewer, the program co-ordinator of the PTSD program at Western Australia’s Hollywood Clinic, told Crikey. He also says younger veterans battling PTSD are more likely to be polydrug users, with alcohol abuse, marijuana and ecstasy all common.

Suicide regularly haunts veterans, with Brewer noting: “There wouldn’t be a program we run with participants who aren’t severally affected by their colleagues who have died by suicide.”

Crikey has heard anecdotally of 12 veterans suiciding since Christmas. The Sunday Herald Sun reported this week that at least 15 ex-servicemen had committed suicide since Christmas.

According to DVA figures, 26 veterans died by suicide between 2008-2012. “Intuitively it would be higher, but it’s very complex,” Shane Carmody, deputy-director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs told Crikey. “We don’t have the data, there is no logical and simple way to collect it.” He notes suicide is under-reported in society more broadly and DVA has no way of being certain of how a veteran died. Since 2000, 86 serving ADF personnel have died by suicide.

Every year DVA spends $160 million on mental health for veterans. And it’s expecting that number to rise with an increase in veterans seeking mental health services.”We know there is a steady growth. We expect that steady growth to continue,” said Carmody.

Of the 240,000 veterans DVA is responsible for, about one third — 47,000 — have an accepted mental health disability. The most common conditions are anxiety disorders, depression, stress disorders (such as PTSD) and alcohol abuse.

DVA is busy updating its own mental health policy, with its Veterans Mental Health Strategy 2013 due out later this year (the consultation period on the draft strategy closed last month).

In the draft strategy, DVA discusses the difficulties facing “contemporary veterans” (those who have seen service in the ADF post 1999, which covers the deployments to East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East), noting these veterans are more likely to have faced multiple deployments, urban warfare and extensive time away from family. However they are also more likely than their older cohorts to have access to technologies to help intervention and treatment of mental health issues and hold higher expectations of the standard of care they should receive.

Last month Crikey revealed that the release of the ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan 2012-2015 was delayed by six months — because no other outside stakeholder had asked for it.

* Free, confidential counselling and support is available from the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service for Australian veterans, peacekeepers and their family members. VVCS can be contacted 24 hours a day on 1800 011 046. For non-military help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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