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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 6315

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (18:41): I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

Audit report No. 48 addresses the administration of mental health initiatives to support younger veterans. To those who have worked hard to protect our nation by serving in our armed forces we owe a profound duty of care. It is a sad reality that we live in a dangerous world, and this has been brought home to Australians again over the last decade, ever since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The need to respond to those attacks and to fight terrorism in other places has meant that we now have a whole generation of service personnel who have been exposed to the horrors of armed conflict. Of course, that is part of the job and part of the risk that anyone takes when they join the RAAF, the Navy or the Australian Army.

The psychological impact of war has always been there. For too long it was an unmentionable subject and generations of returned servicemen suffered in silence. That point was made very, very clear to me and others who attended the Battle of Long Tan commemorative ceremony in Albany last weekend. Mr Peter Aspinall, a very distinguished member of the Albany RSL, said that all wars extract a psychological price from all who are involved.

During the 20th century those who served in the military and were confronted by the psychological barrier were variously labelled as 'lacking moral fortitude' or suffering 'shell shock' or, later, 'battle fatigue'. Summary capital punishment was not an infrequent consequence, but the stigma and shame associated with these labels effectively swept the sufferers under the carpet once the war was over. It was in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and, regrettably, far too long after the return of the last service men and women that the condition now known as post-traumatic stress disorder was recognised as the truly terrible condition that it is—a condition that can affect anyone confronted by severe trauma, not just war related.

Thankfully, since the end of the Vietnam conflict our society has been more willing to acknowledge that not all war wounds are physical and we need to pay more attention to the mental health of those serving in our armed forces. Regrettably, although we may have had the best of intentions, this report makes it clear that when it comes to delivery we are falling well short. The report finds that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has over the last decade offered 'a small suite of disparate mental health programs'. It also finds that these have been 'of limited effectiveness'. Younger veterans are either not aware of the programs or disinclined to use them as they are currently designed. The Department of Veterans' Affairs 2010 survey of younger veterans found only 41 per cent of eligible veterans had accessed the transition management service.

Of course, not everyone needs the same level of assistance when moving back into civilian life. But the fact that almost 60 per cent of veterans are not getting and not seeking assistance should be troubling.

Forty per cent of service related disabilities relate to mental health. Fifty-four per cent of ADF members report experiencing some form of mental health disorder at some point. If almost 60 per cent are not accessing services there clearly must be a gap. The report also finds that the availability of support services is being inadequately communicated to younger service personnel, with no mention made of the transition management service on the ADF's transition website or in its handbook.

This report makes it plain that our younger veterans are not getting the support they need and deserve. Given the stigma attached to mental health issues, which is still more of a problem in the ADF than it is in the general community, far more attention must be paid to ensuring service personnel are made aware that help is available.

More worrying still, the report found that younger veterans forced to leave the service for mental health reasons feel that they are discharged with unseemly haste and ultimately abandoned by the Australian Defence Force. We owe far, far better to those who have risked their lives in the service of our nation and we owe better to their families.

This report makes it clear that we have a long way to go in ensuring that younger veterans get the mental health support services to which they are entitled. I urge the government and the ADF to pay close attention to the report's recommendations and to act quickly to implement them.

Question agreed to.