Report validates veteran suicides inquiry

·4-min read

A new report has shed light on the previously untold scale of Australian veteran suicides and "reaffirms" the need for the upcoming royal commission.

The fourth annual report on suicides among permanent, reserve and ex-serving Australian Defence Force members, released on Wednesday, has expanded its scope to include those who served from 1985 onwards.

Previously, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report dataset was limited to those who served from 2001.

The change has more than doubled the ADF population under consideration to almost 373,500 and reveals 1273 of them took their lives over the past 19 years.

While the number of suicides among the current and former army, navy and air force community has grown by 808 since the 2020 report, the risk is not higher and trends remain largely unchanged.

"The significantly increased risk is from discharge," National Suicide Prevention Advisor Christine Morgan told reporters.

The report comes after the federal government gave the green light to a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which is yet to begin formal hearings.

Commission chair Nick Kaldas, a former NSW Police deputy commissioner and weapons inspector, said the statistics were "harrowing" and would inform the inquiry.

"Reports such as this from the AIHW help build a more complete picture of defence and veteran suicide and are critical as we prepare for public hearings," he said.

Minister for Veterans' Affairs Andrew Gee said the report reaffirmed the need for Australia to give veterans and their families the best support possible.

"There is clearly much more to be done and we can't wait for the conclusion of the royal commission to get cracking on it," he said.

Compared with the general Australian population, age-adjusted suicide rates from 2002 to 2019 were 51 per cent lower for permanent ADF servicemen and 48 per cent lower for reserve servicemen.

However, the trend swings once members leave, with the suicide rate 24 per cent higher for ex-serving men and 102 per cent higher for ex-serving women.

"That only tells some of the story. The rates vary within sub-groups," AIHW's Louise Gates said.

Ex-serving men who left the ADF voluntarily were about a third less likely to take their own life than those who involuntarily exited for medical reasons, while those over 50 were almost twice less likely to kill themselves than those under 50.

The report does not delve into the contributing factors behind suicides and only stretches to the end of 2019.

It means the data does not capture the impact of recent events, including the release of last year's Brereton Report, fallout from former SAS soldier Ben Roberts-Smith's defamation trial and the withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan.

Inaugural Veteran Family Advocate Commissioner Gwen Cherne issued a solemn reminder that the total number of suicides represented real people.

"They are sons and daughters; mothers and fathers," she said.

"They have families and have left so many people behind to live without them and deal with that pain every single day."

It's a pain she knows all too well, having lost her husband Sergeant Peter Cafe to suicide in 2017 after serving in East Timor, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ms Cherne noted suicide was a complex issue and veterans choose to end their lives for a myriad of reasons such as exposure to trauma.

"I know what would have worked for my husband Pete would not have worked for someone else," the war widow said.

She said the AIHW report was another piece of the puzzle and confirmed the experience of veterans and their families.

"It doesn't actually change what we know about veterans who suicide. It just reinforces that we're on the right path," Ms Cherne said.

"The royal commission will dig deep and find more solutions."

Mr Kaldas encouraged anyone who has experienced veteran suicide tragedy to reach out to the commission.

"With your help, we can make changes to prevent the loss of veterans to suicide," he said.

The commission is due to deliver its interim report in August 2022 and a final report the following June.

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