People usually expect blokey, aggressive soldiers who can’t communicate their feelings to be the ones battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hannah Parker* doesn’t fit the stereotype — she’s in her early 30s, a navy veteran and relentlessly optimistic. But her own experience reveals a lot about how the military manages mental health issues. Little support was offered when it was clear mental health services were required; when treatment was accessed, bullying ensued.

Parker signed up to the Defence Force at just 18. A decade later she’d been deployed overseas three times and had been booted out of the military on a physical technicality.

Only a handful of people can perform her role as aircraft controller on a naval ship. In addition to a deployment with the army to East Timor in 1999-2000 and to Hawaii for RIMPAC (the world’s largest maritime warfare exercise), Parker was deployed with the navy to the Persian Gulf in 2002 and 2005-06. She was also stationed off Christmas Island on a navy ship during former John Howard’s “turn back the boats” asylum seeker policy.

The first trip to the Gulf was particularly difficult. After averaging four-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night for six months in a high-pressure environment, Parker was suffering from severe depression and showing signs of PTSD. “I wasn’t getting any help on the ship,” she told Crikey. “If you’re injured or sick, you don’t talk about it, you don’t draw attention to it, because you don’t want to be the one seeing the medic.” She feared being labelled a “sick bay jockey”: someone who is forever “riding” into the sick bay.

After a suicide attempt, Parker was medevaced home to Australia.

But her return to Sydney didn’t make things any easier. “I was ‘the girl who went fruit loop’ or ‘skitzo’,” she said. “My name was mud.” She was deemed unfit for any sea jobs — anyone on antidepressants was banned from sea voyages for nine months (this policy has recently changed, with ADF personnel now allowed “in certain circumstances” to be deployed while on antidepressants). “A lot of people suffering from depression would keep quiet. The conditions attached spell the end of your career.”

The attitudes from superiors were also questionable. Parker was supposed to work at the aircraft control school, but she was told the school wasn’t interested after the suicide attempt. “I went over to explain, and they said, ‘we’ve heard what’s happened, you won’t be working here’.” She was sent to another department, where staff relentlessly bullied her about the Persian Gulf incident until she was transferred.

Instead, she “spent the next year fighting to convince them I wasn’t completely nutty” in order to be eligible for more work at sea. She weaned herself off the antidepressants, although she’d been experiencing PTSD symptoms, including flashbacks, and was regularly seeing a psychiatrist. “I just had to turn around and say, ‘I’m fine’,” said Parker. “I know so many people who’ve done that. If you like your job that much and it’s the be all and end all, you do it. I’ve seen guys who can hardly walk push themselves through physical tests just to show they are right to go.”

Then, during a navy training session at the gym in 2005, Parker severely injured her back. She couldn’t perform a sit-up and was therefore unable to pass the physical. However, her skills were so in demand, the navy signed a waiver allowing her to leave for a second Persian Gulf deployment — “we know you’re broken but please be fixed” was the navy’s attitude, says Parker.

“The last thing I want is sympathy. I don’t need that crap.”

But although the back was an issue, the mental health history was ignored completely. “I mentioned it to my chief and said, ‘I’m worried’, and they replied, ‘well, you’re one of only a couple who can do this’,” said Parker. “It’s ‘what does the ship need?’ versus ‘what do you need?’.”

No mental health services were made available to her on the ship — nor after her return to Australia. And Parker didn’t seek them out: “I didn’t go down that line again because of the experience I had in ’02. As far as I knew, going down that line was leading to a discharge.”

Instead it was the back injury that resulted in her discharge. Despite teaching drill exercises after her second Persian Gulf deployment, Parker was still unable to perform sit-ups (although she could do other exercises). She was supposed to go to sea with the new recruits but was found unfit by the medical board after a nine-month review.

The navy’s reaction was “if you can’t do sit-ups, then our ‘duty of care’ — my favourite words — is that you’re not fit to serve”, according to Parker: “They bend the rules to suit themselves but other times they won’t at all.”

But she always suspected her mental health issues impacted the medical board’s findings. “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,” she said. “It’s not really something you want to sing about afterwards.”

Since leaving the navy in 2008, she’s been out of work for three years and is seeking regular treatment for her depression and PTSD. Parker notes that much of the PTSD treatment is still targeting older veterans, and “even the literature is aimed at the men. The majority of it is aimed at the Army … you never hear about the female angle”.

Not that she wants anyone feeling sorry for her: “The last thing I want is sympathy. I don’t need that crap.”

* 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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