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Australia Alarm at high suicide rate among female defence veterans

19:56  28 november  2019
19:56  28 november  2019 Source:   theage.com.au

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a group of people in uniform: Australian Defence Force personnel at a training exercise.© Glenn Campbell Australian Defence Force personnel at a training exercise.

The suicide rate of female Australian Defence Force veterans is more than twice as high as women of their age in the general population.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released on Friday, which is the first to include suicide information for ex-serving women, found that between 2001 and 2017, 21 women who had been in the armed forces during that period took their own lives.

Darren Chester wearing a suit and tie: Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester says the deaths are tragic.© Alex Ellinghausen Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester says the deaths are tragic.

Men who had been in the military also had a substantially higher suicide rate than that of other men their age. Across the 16-year period examined by the report, 419 current and former service members took their own lives, with 42 dying in 2017.

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Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester said the government was investing more money to support veterans' mental health, transitions out of the military and employment.

"These deaths are tragic, and the only acceptable number is zero," Mr Chester said.

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"Today, I am meeting with my ministerial colleagues from the states and territories to consult with them on the new Veterans’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and Action Plan, and to discuss how we can work together on this important issue."

Among serving men in the defence force, the report found suicide rates were about 50 per cent lower than in the general population but ex-serving men, which does not include those in the reserves, had an 18 per cent higher suicide rate and ex-serving women had a 115 per cent higher rate.

Dr Fiona Hilferty, of the University of NSW, who has completed a major national research project on veteran homelessness, said the fact that the study counted only ADF members who had served since 2001 meant it did not capture the full numbers of veterans' suicides across the period.

"Older veterans' experience is just nowhere in this data," Dr Hilferty said.

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Scott Harris, of the veterans’ organisation The Warrior’s Return, agreed.

"The problem is, they are looking at a specific group, but there are veterans out there in their 70s and 80s who are taking their own lives," he said.

Another report from the AHIW, also released on Friday, found while former ADF members used medications at a similar rate to the general population in 2017-18, anti-depressant use was more common.

One-fifth of of ex-serving ADF users received anti-depressants, which were the most common class of medication dispensed to Department of Veterans Affairs cardholders in 2017-18, the report found, compared to 15 per cent of the general population.

The number of veterans using homelessness services has increased in recent years too, from 216 in the 2011-12 financial year to 399 in 2016-17.

"Of the 109,000 contemporary ex-serving ADF members, 1.1 per cent used specialist homelessness services across the six years. This compares with 3.4 per cent of the Australian population over the same period," AHIW spokesman Michael Frost said.

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But Dr Hilferty said the number of veterans accessing specialist homelessness services was not a good measure of how many needed support.

"Overwhelmingly, veterans who are homeless don’t access traditional homeless services," Dr Hilferty said.

"They see themselves as different to the general population."

Dr Hilferty said when veterans accessed homelessness services, many chose dedicated veterans' providers that did not get government funding and were not counted in the AHIW data, meaning the real rate of veterans' homelessness was likely to be higher than that of the general population.

Professor Megan Mackenzie, from the University of Sydney, said women in the United States armed forces also struggled with elevated suicide rates.

"Some of the factors that researchers there have identified are that a lot of the resources are directed towards male, combat-experienced veteran," Professor Mackenzie said.

She said women who had served in the armed forces faced the risk of sexual assault and were sometimes made to feel invisible when they returned to civilian life.

For help or information, call Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling 1800 011 046; Lifeline 131 114; or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.

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