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Chief of armed forces says more is needed to fight suicide

by Anthony L. Gonzalez

The Australian armed forces chief has admitted the military is not doing enough to stop suicide and suicidality in members and veterans but says the armed forces are on the right track.

General Angus Campbell testified on the fourth day of the Royal Commission’s latest round of defense and veteran suicide hearings in Townsville, less than two weeks before his term ends on July 6.

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

Chief of armed forces says more is needed to fight suicide

General Campbell said that the Australian Defense Force sees about 50 percent of its members arrive and leave every seven years. Cultural change takes time to develop.

“We are on an ongoing journey, but I think we are in the right place in the direction we are going,” he said.

General Campbell revealed that he had not received transfer briefings or had any discussions about suicide and suicidality in the ADF when he took the top job in 2018.

Asked by Counsel Assisting Kevin Connor SC if he considered that an omission and if that would change in the future, the General said there was a process when new leadership came along.

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

At the urging of Mr. Connor, General Campbell admitted that the defendant’s ability to keep track of information on former ADF members was one area that needed to be improved.

“You have accepted that there are currently significant shortcomings in retaining records of ex-serving members?” Mr. Connor took the risk.

“Yes, Counselor,” General Campbell replied.

“And ways need to be found to improve that?” Mr. Connor followed.

“I agree, counselor,” the General said.

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

“Rigorously – and it will create a common position for us within the defense and DVA (Department of Veterans’ Affairs), which will be very valuable for the well-being of our people,” General Campbell added.

The General was questioned about his statement in response to questions from the commission, including why there was no public annual reporting of suicide-related data by the defense.

General Campbell said he would discuss this with the Secretary of Defense.

“I’m completely comfortable with the suggestion,” he said at the hearing.

“I expect it will be a conversation that will lead to the outcome proposed to you.”

Mr. Connor pointed to current defense primary data systems and asked if the General felt they should investigate and pick up on suicide-related events.

“Yes, I am a counselor, but I am not yet confident that every circumstance under the broad heading of suicidality will be detected, reported, and recorded.”

Earlier, the committee heard that post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans can have a cascade effect on their families and especially their children.

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

They discussed how PTSD and suicidality affected veterans’ families and how the research findings were of interest to other groups of military personnel.

“The story here is about PTSD and fathers and how this spreads across generations and has intergenerational influences, and I think that’s a very robust finding,” Professor Edwards said.

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

The committee heard that a veteran’s PTSD can present as absence or detachment, explosive behavior, and a high degree of harsh or hostile parenting.

The survey found that 21 percent of adult children born to Vietnam veterans had received a diagnosis or treatment for depression, 41 percent had suicidal thoughts, and 12 percent reported suicidal plans or actions.

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