Fifteen years of difficult overseas military deployments has resulted in a “steady growth” of Australian veterans battling anxiety, alcohol abuse and post traumatic stress disorder — and the government predicts the situation to worsen.

“Is it a tsunami? I’m not sure. But it is on the rise,” Shane Carmody, deputy director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), told Crikey.

This week Crikey launched Battle Scars, a series examining mental health and PTSD among our younger veterans. Yesterday we spoke with one soldier who quietly battled PTSD throughout his military career out of fear of losing his job, and next week we have more case studies of military personnel suffering mental trauma, stories from the partners who cope with it at home and the psychologists who are attempting to treat these illnesses.

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But today the focus is on DVA. When someone leaves the military, they are no longer the responsibility of the Department of Defence. When asked how well DVA works with Defence on mental health issues, Carmody replied: “on a leadership level we have the same attitude. I would say at the coalface, it may be different”. DVA organises pensions, medical benefits and helps the return to civilian life — plus runs the treatment and/or compensation for any injuries or disabilities incurred during the military career.

So just how serious is the increase in mental health disorders? “Anecdotally it’s a lot,” said Carmody. “We’re not being complacent, but we have thought it through because we’ve been planning for it. We’re trying to stand up and match the growth.”

DVA has been busy preparing for “contemporary veterans” by developing new media methods to destigmatise mental health treatment. A YouTube series on military mental health, with high-production values and high-profile current and ex-serving personnel starring in them, was created by DVA last year. A range of current and ex-military personnel — including younger veterans — reveal their experiences with issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, and depression.

Last month DVA launched the PTSD Coach Australia app. It’s a practical tool offering methods to self-assess PTSD and manage its symptoms, such as suggestions for positive thinking, techniques to help people fall asleep, soothing audio and relaxing imagery of beaches. If you’re suffering from anger, for example, the app asks you to rate your anger out of 10 (it keeps records of your results) and then talks you through a relaxation exercise.

There have been over 1800 iPhone downloads and 400 Android downloads since it launched. “That allows us to put treatment right in the hand in the individual,” said Carmody. “It won’t solve all of their problems, but it offers tools to manage PTSD.” There’s also another DVA app based on tracking alcohol consumption (alcohol abuse is a regular issue with veterans) called In The Mix. “All of these things help to reduce the stigma”, said Carmody.

Several PTSD sufferers told Crikey of the lengthy delays and paperwork nightmare, which can take years, for injuries or disabilities to be verified by DVA, which renders them eligible for compensation and treatment. Carmody acknowledges there can be problems and adds “we try and differentiate between the treatment and the claims for compensation”. All veterans can immediately access treatment for PTSD, anxiety or depression regardless of whether or not their service relates to their mental health concerns. However, in order to claim compensation, it must be proved that the injury results directly from military service.

The highly regarded Veterans and Veterans Family Counselling Service is funded by DVA but runs independently in 15 sites. Counselling statistics show a rise in veterans and their families seeking treatment, with around 10,000 clients in 2007-2008 and 50,000 sessions run. Last year VVCS provided mental health treatment to more than 10,500 clients, with over 60,000 sessions (group or individual) run.

Interestingly, just 47% of the people who attended VVCS were veterans or current ADF members. In the last year, over a quarter of its counselling clients were partners (couple counselling is common, with divorce a regular occurrence in younger veterans) and 22% were children of military personnel (including children of Vietnam veterans).

Of the DVA’s 350,000 veterans, around 10,000 die every year (mainly World War II survivors). But each year another 5000 contemporary veterans join the DVA ranks. Currently $160 million is being spent annually by DVA on mental health services (not including compensation), and with cuts being made across defence areas in the last few years — which Carmody says so far hasn’t affected mental health treatment — expect that more cash will be needed.

How big the problem will be — both in a financial and a social sense — is still unknown. “For a lot of people it takes many years for mental health problems to emerge,” said Carmody. “The chronic people who leave the ADF for mental health reasons, clearly we pick them up and help them. But for people who have masked their mental health illness, or don’t know if they have one, sometimes it takes years to pop up.”

* 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, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.

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