Defense Force chief says more is needed to tackle suicide

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The Australian Defense Force chief has admitted the military is not doing enough to stop suicide and suicidal tendencies among members and veterans, but says the armed forces are on the right track.

General Angus Campbell was giving evidence on the fourth day of the final round of Royal Commission hearings into Veterans’ Defense and Suicide in Townsville, less than two weeks before his term ends on July 6.

“The defense is not doing enough to reduce incidents of suicide and suicidality,” he told the inquest after arriving in Queensland on Thursday.

The Australian Defense Force sees around 50 per cent of its members come and go every seven years, Gen Campbell said, adding that culture change “takes time to develop”.

“We’re on a continuous journey, but I think we’re in the right place in terms of the direction we’re going,” he said.

General Campbell revealed that he received no handover briefings or had any discussions regarding suicide and suicidal tendencies within the ADF when he took the top job in 2018.

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Asked by Assistant Counsel Kevin Connor SC if he saw this as an oversight and if it would change in the future, the general said there was a process when new leaders come in.

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t fully aware of the issue as head of the army and head of the defense force.

Pressed by Mr Connor, General Campbell admitted that the defense’s ability to retain information on former ADF members was a particular area that needed improvement.

“You have now accepted that there are significant gaps in the ability to retain data on former serving members?” Mr. Connor ventured out.

“Yes, lawyer,” replied General Campbell.

“And ways must be found to improve this?” Mr. Connor followed.

“I agree with that, lawyer,” the general said.

Mr. Connor then said “I suggest to you that they should be found relatively quickly, provided it is a rigorous process”, to which the general agreed.

“Strictness – and this will create a common vision for us across Defense and DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs) which will be extremely valuable to the well-being of our people,” Gen Campbell added.

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The general was asked about his statement in response to questions from the committee, including why there was no public annual report on defense suicide data.

General Campbell said he would speak to the Minister of Defence.

“I’m completely comfortable with the suggestion,” he told the audience.

“I expect this to be a conversation that will lead to the outcome that has been offered to you.”

Mr. Connor pointed to the defense’s current primary data systems and asked if the general thought they should review and detect suicide-related events.

“Yes, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not yet convinced through force that every circumstance under the general rubric of suicidality is detected, reported, recorded.”

Earlier, the commission heard that post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans can have cascading effects on their families and especially their children.

Associate Professor Ben Edwards and Dr. Galina Daraganova testified about a 2014 Vietnam Veteran Family Study on the physical, mental and social health of the sons and daughters of Vietnam Veterans.

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They discussed the impact of PTSD and suicidality on the families of veterans and how the study results impacted other groups of military men and women.

“The story here is really about PTSD and fathers, and how that ripples across generations and has cross-generational influences, and I think that’s a very solid finding,” Prof Edwards said.

“There is no doubt in my mind, based on the evidence…that this could potentially be a problem for other groups of men and women in service.”

The commission heard that a veteran’s PTSD can present as absence or detachment and explosive behavior, as well as high rates of harsh or hostile parents.

The study found that 21% of adult children of Vietnam veterans had been diagnosed or treated for depression, 41% had suicidal thoughts and 12% reported suicidal plans or actions.

-PAA

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