BLOG: Diggers risk a lifetime of mental disorders

Over two million Australians, ranging in age from 18 to 80+ years, are currently serving, or have served, in the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). These folks are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, friends, and friends of a friend.

A couple of years ago I was honoured to have a conversation with one of our distinguished Illawarra veterans. I watched as he recalled in brilliant detail, experiences as a soldier that had changed his life forever.

Tears welled in his eyes as he described his pain and life experiences that followed – grief from missing the birth of a child, flash-backs, anger, anxiety, depression, feeling misunderstood and without an identity, and difficulties holding down a civil job, among many others things.

As a group, deployed and non-deployed ADF veterans experience mental and physical health problems at rates far exceeding that of the Australian general population.

This is not surprising. A normal response to being placed in situations that threaten our lives is for our bodies and minds to respond in ways that help us be alert and defend ourselves – being aggressive and on guard is arguably the best way to stay alive when under threat.

The problem is that our bodies and minds don’t have a simple “off switch”, for when we don’t need these responses any more. That’s when our normal responses become a problem if left untreated.

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Almost 50,000 Australian war veterans are currently living with a mental disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) are common among Australian veterans, and strongly associated with low quality of life and mental disorders that persist for up to decades after deployment.

Importantly, these problems persist - 50 years after the Korean War, diagnoses of PTSD, GAD, Social Anxiety Disorder  and major depression are common among Australia’s surviving Korean War veterans, negatively impacting on individuals, their families, the ADF, and communities.

What does this mean for our diggers and their families? As a community, we are deeply grateful to our military for the freedom and security their gift of service gives us.

 As a community, we must also remain mindful of the consequences that our diggers face as a result of their gift.

The Australian Commonwealth Government spends upwards of $145 million annually on services to support the mental health care of the ADF community.

Despite this significant investment, and the wide variety of community and outpatient interventions that are available specifically for Australian veterans, many seek no help at all.

As a community, one of the most important things we must do is support our diggers, and their families, to recover from the impact of war and remain healthy by accessing these services.

Our diggers have given our community a gift that impacts a lifetime – theirs, ours, and all those around them – we must never forget. We must respect and support them.

Dr Coralie Wilson is a Behavioural Health Scientist, the Academic Leader for Personal and Professional Development in the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Wollongong. http://www.uow.edu.au/gsm/staff/UOW028294.html

References

Dunt D. (2009). Independent study into suicide in the ex-service community. Report for the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

Ikin J., Sim M et al. (2007). Anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in Korean War veterans 50 years after the war. British J Psychiatry.

O’Toole B, Catts S, Outram S et al. (2009). The physical and mental health of Australian Vietnam veterans 3 decades after the war and its relation to military service, combat, and post-traumatic stress disorder. American J Epidemiology.

Toomey R, Kang H et al. (2007). Mental health of U.S. Gulf War veterans 10 years after the war. British J Psychiatry.

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