New findings on suicide prevention

Published on Department of Defence (author), LSIS Bradley Darvill (photographer)

Topic(s): Establishments, Bases and Headquarters, Culture, Ships, Boats and Submarines

HMAS Ballarat in company with the Royal Canadian Navy ships HMCS Ottawa and Winnipeg conduct Officer of the Watch manoeuvres during HMAS Ballarat's South East Asia Deployment. (photo: LSIS Bradley Darvill)
HMAS Ballarat in company with the Royal Canadian Navy ships HMCS Ottawa and Winnipeg conduct Officer of the Watch manoeuvres during HMAS Ballarat's South East Asia Deployment.

A report on suicide issued on 30 June, has revealed that Defence personnel serving full-time or in the Reserves are far less likely to take their own lives compared to the general population.
In recent years there has been concern expressed about suicide among serving and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force, and public criticism about the inability to accurately report on the incidence of suicide once members have left the service.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare conducted the study to give Defence and Department of Veterans’ Affairs a full picture on suicide among service and ex-serving Defence members.
Commander Joint Health Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart said the report’s findings were positive.
“The findings from this report help to confirm what we have suspected for some time, that protective factors put in place by Defence are working to reduce the risk of suicide among current serving members of the Australian Defence Force,” Air Vice Marshal Smart said .
The study found there were 325 confirmed suicides of serving and former personnel between 2001 and 2015.
As only seven per cent of suicides were made up of women, the report only had enough data to focus on men.
The suicide rates were shown to be 53 per cent lower for men serving full-time and 49 per cent lower for Reservist men when compared with all Australian men, and after adjusting for age.
“This data really says a lot for the systems we’ve got in place across Defence; in terms of command and welfare systems, our suicide-prevention initiatives and the access to quality healthcare that is available to all Defencemembers,” Air Vice Marshal Smart said.
Unique stressors are associated with military life, and a range of programs have been implemented by Defence in recent years aimed at building resilience, improving awareness of suicide prevention, addressing the stigma felt by Defence members, and encouraging them to seek help as early as possible.
However, the study also indicates that once members leave Defence and these protective factors are reduced, they can become more vulnerable.
The suicide rates of ex-serving men were more than twice as high as for those serving full-time or in the Reserves.
They were also 14 per cent higher than their counterparts in the general population.
Young ex-serving men aged 18 to 29 were shown to be at particular risk.
They were twice as likely to die from suicide than Australian men of the same age.
In addition, the institute found certain service characteristics – such as involuntary discharge, particularly if discharged for medical reasons, or leaving the Defence Force with less than one year of service – were associated with higher suicide rates among ex-serving men.
There was very little difference between those who had operational service and those who did not.
These results highlight the importance of the transition process out of Defence, and emphasises the need to focus on improving support for individuals leaving Defence.
“The media and public opinion in recent years has tended to focus on the impact of service in Afghanistan, or experience of PTSD, as the main reasons for people taking their own lives,” Air Vice Marshal Smart said.
“But this data shows that’s not the full picture.
“As important as it is that we pay attention to those who have operational service, it now appears that some of those most at risk may be people leaving Defence very early, or they have had their careers cut short, and that’s quite a different story.
“We might find people aren’t temperamentally suited to being in Defence but all their lives they’ve wanted to be a soldier.
“They could still be in a training establishment and are being discharged for a physical reason; that could be a loss of their identity and who they wanted to be.”
This research provides Defence and Veterans’ Affairs with strong evidence to better target their efforts to those most at risk.
It will be used to inform not only suicide-prevention projects already underway, but also the development of future policy and services to support serving and ex-serving Defence personnel.
Air Vice Marshal Smart said it was also important to get the message out to people to seek help as early as possible for any mental health concerns, particularly if they or someone they knew was experiencing thoughts of suicide.
“Defence has a wide range of mental health services available for current Defence members,” Air Vice Marshal Smart said.
“This is enhanced by the range of services and initiatives available through Veterans’ Affairs.
“So for anyone who has served a single day in the Defence Force they can now access unlimited mental health services for any mental health condition through the non-liability healthcare arrangements with Veterans’ Affairs.”
With a new Defence Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy due for release in October, Air Vice Marshal Smart said Defence would not become complacent about the issue.
“We have a much lower suicide rate but we can’t rest on our laurels,” she said.
“Suicide is just one measure. We want to have an operationally fit and ready force, so the earlier we can intervene, the more chance we’re going to keep these valuable people.”
If you or someone you know is troubled by thoughts of suicide or self-harm you can seek help in emergency situations by calling 000.
Defence members are also encouraged to visit the Wellbeing portal on the Defence website: