Veterans and Doreen RSL members Derek Baskerville, left, and Paul Groenveld, who managers Anytime Fitness Doreen. A gym program is helping veterans with physical and mental health.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

A gym program in Doreen is helping war veterans not only improve fitness, but their mental health.

With a Royal Commission into veteran and defence personnel suicides announced last week and Anzac Day being commemorated on Sunday, the mental health of veterans is in the spotlight.

Between 2001, when the Australian Defence Force was first deployed to Afghanistan, and 2020, more than 400 serving and returned service people have died by suicide, compared to the 41 ADF personnel who were killed while serving in Afghanistan in the same time period.

More than a dozen Australian veterans have died by suicide so far in 2021.

Anytime Fitness’s Doreen branch welcomes almost 40 veterans weekly for its veterans wellness program, run by an exercise physiologist from NJF Wellness and subsidised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Doreen RSL member and Vietnam veteran Derek Baskerville said his mental health had benefitted since joining the program.

“For me it’s been fantastic, the amount of local people that I get to meet,” he said.

“People might come along just to get themselves more physically or mentally fit, but it becomes more of a social thing because it’s not just veterans that go there.”

“Even over the last couple of weeks when I’ve been volunteering to sell badges for Anzac Day, people come up to me and say, ‘oh I see you walking around here all the time’. It’s just terrific that enabling me to meet and socialise.”

Through the program, DVA healthcare card holders are eligible for three 30-minute sessions per week with an exercise physiologist, who devises tailored exercise plans to help veterans develop fitness or cope with chronic conditions or injuries, and can recommend other health professionals in the area should further assistance be required.

“You meet with the physiologist, she then puts you through a training session and has a really in-depth discussion with you to find where you’re at physically and mentally,” Mr Baskerville said.

But learning of the program’s existence came as a surprise to Mr Baskerville.

He heard of the program serendipitously when he met Paul Groenveld, a fellow Doreen RSL member and the manager of the gym.

“A lot of these things don’t get given to the veterans so we don’t get to know about it, no one talks about it, it’s such a maze,” Mr Groenveld said.

“I’d be out for 10 years and no one had told me. It’s not like the DVA sends you out information.

“They don’t say, thanks very much for your services as you walk out the door, these are all the things you can get – you’re on your own.”

Returned service people have poorer mental health than the Australian public – a DVA study in 2015 revealed that 17.7 per cent of transitioned Australian Defence Force personnel had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder compared to 8.7 per cent still serving in the ADF full-time, and 5.2 per cent of the national population.

In 2018, 22 per cent of men who had ever served in the ADF reported a mental or behavioural condition, for example, anxiety and mood disorders, or problems with alcohol.

Mr Groenveld said many veterans had told him the gym had become their RSL.

“When you meet another veteran, you know you’re mates straight away, you know you’re with friends and you feel safe, and the young guys here feel safer here than anywhere they’ve felt before,” he said.

DVA card holders are eligible for veteran wellness sessions, which are free upon GP referral. Anytime Fitness RSL also offers $4 workout sessions to veterans with no membership required. The gym is at 107 Hazel Glen Dr, Doreen, and can be reached on (03) 9715 2033.

For 24-hour free and confidential counselling and support for current and former ADF members and their families, call Open Arms on 1800 011 046.