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Veteran suicide has been labelled a ‘national tragedy’. This mother who lost her son is urging action

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A mother who lost her 21-year-old son to suicide when he was serving in the Australian Defence Force has urged the government to act decisively on the interim recommendations of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
The failure to adequately address the scourge of lives lost among Australian Defence Force members has been laid bare in the commission’s initial report handed to the government on Thursday.

The royal commission’s 348-page interim findings warn attempts to provide support to veterans continue to be impeded by structural and cultural failures.

Dr Nikki Jamieson with her son Daniel. Source: Supplied

Dr Nikki Jamieson – the first person to give evidence to the inquiry – is pleading for its recommendations to be urgently followed to prevent other families from sharing the same grief.

“People will continue to die [if change doesn’t occur] and I won’t allow that to happen – no way that doesn’t even factor in,” she told SBS News. 

“I will make sure in all the powers that I have that these recommendations are executed and implemented and there is an accountability.”

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It is devastating that Australia has lost more serving and former serving personnel to suicide than it has lost through operations over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Matt Keogh MP

Her son Daniel took his own life in 2014 after feeling he was bullied and harassed when he was a member of the defence force based in Darwin.
His mother still remembers him for his “cheeky, outgoing and loyal” personality, describing him as an “amazing human being”.

But she said the lasting impact of his death continues to drive her determination to bring about change to protect future lives.

“I don’t believe we ever heal from a suicide loss,” she said.

“If I can save just one family from having to live with what I had to live with and what many other Australians have to live with every day … then I’ve done my job.”

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What did the war veterans report reveal?

The royal commission has uncovered personal stories like Daniel’s, recounting experiences and perspectives from veterans, their families, friends and support networks.
The report noted the culture in the defence force, where people felt disclosing mental health issues could be detrimental to their career, had contributed to serving members not seeking help.
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh said there was a clear need to respond to the problem.
“The rate of veteran suicide in Australia is a national tragedy and it is a rate that is significantly higher than across the general Australian population,” he told reporters.

“It is devastating that Australia has lost more serving and former serving personnel to suicide than it has lost through operations over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh speaks at a press conference.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh has described concerns over veteran suicides as a “national tragedy”. Source: AAP / LUKAS COCH

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report from 2021 found ex-serving ADF members are at higher risk of suicide, with males 24 per cent more likely to die and females about twice as likely.

There were 1,273 deaths by suicide among serving and ex-serving ADF members between 2001 and 2009, which included 211 serving and 1,062 ex-serving members.
The royal commission was called by the previous Morrison government in April last year.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton expressed his support for the need to secure a “better deal” for veterans.
“It is a national tragedy and this is a problem that has been frankly decades in the making,” he told reporters.

“The way in which the country provides support to our veterans should be a source of national pride and not shame.”

Claims backlog and structural failings

The inquiry has identified a backlog of some 41,799 claims from veterans seeking assistance from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), and structural shortfalls in their administration as among pressing concerns requiring urgent attention.
The royal commission’s authors — chair Nick Kaldas, commissioner James Douglas and commissioner Peggy Brown — were critical of the operation of the compensation system.
“It is clear to us that Australia’s veteran compensation and rehabilitation legislative system is so complicated that it adversely affects the mental health of some veterans,” the report said.

Targeting these concerns, the report’s first recommendation calls for the administration of claims to be improved to “simplify and harmonise” the framework for accessing “compensation, rehabilitation and other entitlements”.

The backlog means these claims are waiting to be allocated to a decision-maker at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
To receive compensation, treatment of rehabilitation services from DVA members must submit a claim to DVA and have that claim accepted.
“Veterans’ poor experiences of the claims processing system can have a serious impact on their mental health outcomes,” the report said.
Another recommendation of the royal commission outlines the need for the claims backlog to be eliminated.
It advises the Australian government to resource the DVA to clear this by 31 March 2024.
Mr Keogh said the Albanese government had committed 500 additional staff to address the processing concerns, saying he believed this would be “sufficient”.

“I don’t have a time frame by when we will be able to get through that backlog as yet, but getting greater clarity on that is something that I’m really committed to,” he said.

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Cultural concerns within the ADF

In its preliminary report, the royal commission notes concerns over cultural aspects of the ADF, but indicates it will have more to say about this in its final report.
The initial observations identify abuse suffered in the ADF as a risk factor for suicide, as well as structural and systemic factors that lead to the permutation of this abuse.

“These include the hierarchical command structures of the services, a culture that discourages the reporting of abuse, and Defence mismanagement of reports of abuse,” the report said.

Mr Keogh said he recognised the report had identified multi-layered problems with concerns ranging from those “cultural” to “structural”.
“That’s why we supported a royal commission to get to the bottom of that of what needs to happen,” he said.
The commissioners also expressed their dismay over the “limited ways Australian governments have responded to previous inquiries and reports”.
They identified over 50 previous reports into the issue and more than 750 recommendations.
The royal commission’s final report will be handed down in June 2024.

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Soldier On Australia on 1300 620 380.

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