Navy officer David Finney, who took his own life in 2019 (Image: Supplied)

Scott Morrison has been keen to show his pro-veteran credentials since assuming the prime ministership. He’s promoted an extravagant $500 million upgrade of the Australian War Memorial, and given Australia’s veterans equal billing with Indigenous elders “past, present and emerging” at formal events and ceremonies.

Yet when it comes to the invisible side of being a veteran — living with the mental scars of a war that never ends — Morrison has been found wanting, with ex-service personnel continuing to take their own lives at an alarming rate.

In this series of special reports, Crikey reveals that:

  • The government has stopped funding world-leading research into veteran’s mental health conducted at the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies (CTSS) in Adelaide
  • The government shut down independent research on new and more effective ways to treat soldiers and veterans suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the Centenary of Anzac Centre in Melbourne
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) has rebranded the mental health crisis of veterans, and now focuses on “wellness” rather than “illness”.

In early February this year Morrison summoned the media for a special announcement: the government would be appointing a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicides.

“Too many veterans take their own lives. And one veteran taking their own life is one too many,” Morrison said.

Eight months on, the legislation establishing the commissioner has not passed federal parliament. An interim commissioner, ACT coroner Dr Bernadette Boss, was appointed last week.

But commission or not, the number of suicides continues to rise.

This year, 41 ADF personnel and veterans have taken their own lives, according to The Warrior’s Return, a veteran support organisation which cross-checks information with family members, police and media reports. Distressingly, six have suicided in the past three weeks, it says.

And the overall numbers?

The Warrior’s Return says 646 Australian soldiers and veterans have killed themselves since 2001, including highly decorated special forces soldiers who did multiple deployments to Afghanistan.

The CTSS estimated that 505 veterans discharged from 2010-2014 tried to kill themselves in the 12-month period after they left service.

CTSS research also shows:

  • 21.7% of veterans discharged between 2010 and 2014 experienced suicidal ideation, plans or attempts in the previous 12 months
  • 46.6% were estimated to have had a mental disorder and nearly 10% bipolar disorder
  • 24.9% were estimated to have met the criteria for PTSD in their lifetime.

It has been left to the relatives of the dead to make the case for stronger action such as a royal commission — mothers like former accountant Julie-Ann Finney, whose son David Finney killed himself on February 1, 2019.

The navy discharged David in 2017 after he developed PTSD. Among the traumas David experienced during a decorated 20-year career as a mechanic: fighting a fire onboard HMAS Tobruk in 2004, getting caught in a riot during peacekeeping operations, and rescuing refugees and recovering bodies, including children, from the ocean.

David was living in the ACT as his mental health worsened. A DVA contractor told David in late October 2018 there were no psychiatrists in the ACT seeing new DVA clients.

Julie-Ann has told a small part of David’s story in a petition she launched for a royal commission.

“He desperately wanted to stay alive, but David was failed by a broken system … this petition is about the systemic failures [of] the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), who had numerous opportunities to save my son and they failed.”

Julie-Ann met Morrison in person three times. Morrison even called her once. The prime minister says critics who say the new commission won’t have the punch of a royal commission are “absolutely wrong”, and insists this body will have powers akin to a royal commission.

But the commission sits inside the Attorney-General’s Department. It will report annually to parliament, unlike a royal commission which delivers its findings in the media spotlight.

Julie-Ann believes the national commission is a cop-out and hasn’t minced words, telling Morrison in one video clip that she would “make the call for hundreds of families to go for individual coronial inquests” to get a “true independent investigation” if necessary.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636. Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling is on 1800 011 046, and the ADF Mental Health All-hours Support Line is 1800 628 036.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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