PUCKAPUNYAL families voiced frustration at a lack of mental health support services for serving and former defence force members as federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Darren Chester visited the army base on Wednesday.
Mr Chester consulted with Australian Defence Force personnel and their families during his visit as part of the preliminary stages of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide announced by the Federal Government last month.
He said he was in the process of travelling across Australia to listen to concerns about the defence mental health support system, which he will present to the Attorney-General to help shape the commission’s terms of reference.
Mr Chester took part in a question-and-answer session with the partners of serving defence personnel, who said support for members and their families was often inadequate and hard to access.
They also shared concerns that some members who had self-reported mental health issues had seen their careers suffer as a result, being passed over for promotions or encouraged to leave the service.
Mr Chester said a cultural shift was needed to encourage military members to be forthright about their mental health.
“We need to make sure people are confident in their reporting and seeking treatment and it won’t harm their career,” he said.
“Across defence and across the nation, we still have a long way to go in understanding mental health, reducing the stigma and encouraging people to seek treatment as early as possible. There is a lot of work to be done both within defence and the broader Australian community.”
Puckapunyal Primary School defence support mentor Karen Sullivan said several families were grappling with an alarming lack of mental health support at the base. She said she was referring families to Shepparton Legacy in lieu of more appropriate services.
“There are a lot of spouses out there who are actively watching their serving member with concern about their mental health and there are a lot of serving members who don’t share the true nature of their mental health issues because it’s not the done thing, or they are concerned about the ramifications,” she said.
“My concern for families and kids when they come in distress is I actually don’t know where to send them that they can get legitimate help from.
“At the moment I’m sending them to Legacy, and there’s no way that active members who are still serving should have to access an external charity for help.”
Ms Sullivan said the commission should examine barriers preventing active and former service personnel from accessing mental health support.
“I would like [the royal commission] to look at what work is being done to give soldiers mental resilience so that when they come across really stressful situations, they have the tools to deal with that before it happens,” she said.
“I would like the [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] process to be better, because a lot of [veterans] are falling over because it is too difficult – their mental health is already poor and therefore navigating that process is too difficult.
“They just fall over at one hurdle and a lot of them just give up, because unfortunately their mental health is poor enough that that hurdle is too significant for them to jump.
“Families also need the resources to be able to help the serving member or the veteran with their mental health. You can’t just aim it at that veteran or serving member, you need to support that family to support the member.”
Mr Chester said he believed contemporary statistics underestimated the prevalence of mental health issues in the military.
“What we’re seeing in the research is that serving men and women have better mental-health outcomes – less self-harm and less suicide – than the background population of Australians while they’re serving,” he said.
“We find members who transition from full-time service to reserve service still have better mental health outcomes than the background population.
“When they transition and become civilians, we’re seeing poorer mental health outcomes … particularly from young blokes who are medically discharged.
“I think one thing the royal commission will find is the numbers of mental health concerns among serving members are not reflected in the figures, because they’re hiding it or they’re going off base to get help to hide it from the chain of command so that it doesn’t affect their deployment prospects or their promotion prospects.”
Member for Nicholls Damian Drum, who attended with Mr Chester, said it was not only Puckapunyal but the broader Mitchell Shire that was suffering from a lack of mental health services.
“I want to see [the lack of mental health support services] addressed not just in the royal commission, but in general,” he said.
“The people at Puckapunyal who are suffering some mental ailments and are looking for support might go off base and look for support, and it doesn’t exist at all.
“For many years now people with mental health issues from Seymour, Kilmore, Wallan and Broadford have either been forced to go right into Melbourne to get those services … or out to Shepparton, and it’s unacceptable.”
Mr Drum said a new HeadtoHelp centre in Seymour would provide mental health support to people in the region as it expanded its operations.
“The HeadtoHelp office has opened up with a practising mental health practitioner. It’s a fantastic first port of call, and it’s not only good news for the people of Seymour, but also the personnel at Puckapunyal,” he said.
“That will get bigger and bigger and there will be more services. At the moment it’s only open a couple of days a week, but it will effectively become more and more user-friendly into the very near future.”
Free, 24-hour confidential counselling and support for current and former ADF members and their families is available by calling Open Arms on 1800 001 046.
Lifeline Australia provides free, 24-hour crisis support and can be reached by calling 13 11 14.
People can call HeadtoHelp on 1800 595 212 or visit in person at 54 Tallarook Street, Seymour to learn more about support services.