Fears of growing suicide rates among returning veterans

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There are fears suicide rates among returned service men and women could increase significantly as some veterans leave the military without accessing support. Both Defence and the Department Of Veterans Affairs offer prevention programs but many soldiers discharge with undiagnosed mental health issues.

Even before his peace-keeping tour of East Timor ended, combat engineer Brett Wiggins was struggling.

"I used to sit in the toilets toward the end of my trip with my service pistol and put it to my head and just think it'd be so much better if I pulled the trigger and ended my life," he says.

His post-traumatic stress and associated mental health conditions went undiagnosed for some time, but upon return from the peace-keeping mission, he says his behaviour was unpredictable.  

"I suppose it reached a peak when we had a parade for our CO who was leaving and I put my rifle down and walked off parade and went and sat in the transport sheds until they found me and they sent me to the base hospital," he says.

"I was a mess basically. I was stressed, I couldn't cope and it felt like things were falling down around me."

Brett was eventually discharged and continued to battle the impact of post-traumatic stress, and feelings of worthlessness.

"Just feeling horrible that people were getting killed and we couldn't do anything about it feeling responsible for that was really hard,” he says.

"I'd been told by people that I wasn't a real veteran because I was just a peace keeper. The psychologist told me that my problems weren't from East Timor because it was just peace-keeping and it wasn't that bad."

Brett then began to "self-medicate," first with alcohol, then cannabis. His drug use escalated until he became a regular IV Ice user.

"It made me forget what I'd been through," he says "It  made me stop feeling the emotions I was feeling - it just took me away."

READ MORE: Aussie soldier battles drug horror

But regular drug use didn't temper Brett's suicidal thoughts.

The now-34-year old tells SBS: "When I tried to gas myself, I had a car and I was just about to fall asleep and all I could think of was my family and I just started crying." 

Stigma and shame

While incredibly confronting, Brett's story isn't uncommon according to Psychiatrist Dr Andrew Khoo, who says "the phenomenon of suicide of returned soldiers or veterans has been identified in the United States and the UK as being higher than the numbers killed in action."

Dr Khoo identifies mental health stigma as a real issue in the military, claiming it’s male-dominated and competitive.

"Strength is celebrated both physically and psychologically and weakness is not tolerated," he says.

But he says the real problem is identifying and treating those who discharge from the military and are effectively lost to the robust suicide-prevention programs offered by both Defence and The Department of Veterans Affairs.

"They effectively fall through the cracks and become lost to avenues of care and it's this cohort of defence personnel that I worry about," Dr Khoo says.

"That's the problem. Because we don't know how many fall into that category, we don't know how many are suffering mental issues and maybe contemplating and even completing suicide." 

Defence says it offers a mandatory suicide awareness package after completing a thorough, external review of its suicide program in 2012.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says its focus is on early intervention and seeks to make veterans aware advice and support is available throughout their civilian lives.  

Detailed accounts of the Defence and DVA suicide prevention policies can be found here.

'Mixed emotions'

Women in the services are also vulnerable to post-traumatic stress and mental health issues. After enlisting in the Australian Army at 17, Kylie Keep deployed to East Timor as a chef in January 2000.

She was anticipating the experience of a lifetime, telling SBS: "I had a lot of mixed emotions but most of all I was proud 'cos I was going to go and serve my country."

Kylie spent time on picket duty and even patrol, and says the experience was both rewarding and confronting.

When Kylie returned from deployment she became depressed and gambled. She drank excessively and turned to illicit drugs.



She says difficulties in accessing entitlements increased her frustration, and her already ailing mental health worsened.

"I was admitted into psych hospital several times," she says. "[I was] suicidal - didn't want to be here. A couple of times I overdosed and was brought back with Narcan (Naloxone)."

Kylie is now drug- and alcohol-free, and keen to see more support through the post-discharge phase. 

Rebuilding

John Jarrett runs veterans support group "Young Diggers," which includes a program training and donating companion dogs for returned service men and women.

He agrees the real issue is identifying those who are no longer eligible for military assistance and for whatever reason don't seek help.

"They're very badly wounded either physically or mentally [and] they don’t want their mates to know ‘cos it's a sign of weakness take admin discharge or voluntary discharge,” he says.

“These young people are now civilians and it is a community issue and we need to step up and help these guys who put their hand up to fight for our nation."

Mr Jarrett believes all former soldiers should discharge through a reserve scheme, where their mental health can be closely monitored.

"They can keep track of these guys, and if they don't turn up, why don't they turn up? Contact their family and see if there are problems. This is what I consider the easy way of doing it."

Brett Wiggins is now several months free of drugs and regularly volunteers at a suburban op-shop, which raises money for veterans. He says it's played a crucial role in his recovery.



"Just doing volunteer work helps with my self-esteem," he says. "It helps me think that I'm contributing to society. I've already inquired about other volunteer work I can do to keep myself busy and help improve my life," he says.

But not everyone manages to battle through.

In January, Australian Army Captain and Afghanistan Veteran Paul McKay was found to have taken his own life in the United States.

John Jarrett had been in touch with Captain McKay and had even selected him a companion- dog.

The dog was subsequently allocated to one of Captain McKay's friends. The pain and frustration is evident in John Jarrett's voice as he reflects on the death of the Australian officer.

"Disgusted that there's more flamin' suicides," he says.

"This young man was a very, very bright young man had a whole lot to look forward to but couldn't see it. Paul didn't need to be there and it's so sad there wasn't someone there to take him out of that dark place."

It's a view shared by Brett Wiggins, who knows better than most just how difficult it can be coping without suitable support.

"It's just completely overwhelming not being able to cope with the situation you’re in," he says.

"Thinking [that] ending my life would be better than living - that's a pretty dire place to be in.

"It's horrible."

The Department of Defence provided a statement to SBS. The full statement can be found here.

Free and confidential counselling for eligible veterans and their families is available from the Veterans And Veterans Families Counselling Service.  VVCS can be contacted 24 hours a day on 1800 011 046

Anyone experiencing mental health issues is encouraged to contact Lifeline, Beyond Blue or any other support organisation.

Source SBS

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