SHANE MCLEOD: As the last of Australia’s troops stationed at Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan prepare to leave the base by the end of this year, there’s renewed focus on the mental health consequences of their service.
The World Today has been told that up to 10 per cent of the 26,000 troops could eventually suffer mental illness as a result of their deployment.
The Veterans Affairs Minister says the mental health of soldiers returning from Afghanistan is pivotal and has foreshadowed further announcements in the area.
Lexi Metherell reports.
LEXI METHERELL: Australian soldiers are packing up the Tarin Kowt base in Afghanistan.
Most should be home by the end of the year.
The Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson says Australia has a huge obligation to them.
MICHAEL RONALDSON: We cannot repeat the mistakes of post-Vietnam, where this country let down those men who were doing no more and no less than serving the nation at the nation’s request.
LEXI METHERELL: Senator Ronaldson says the Veterans Affairs Department already serves 46,000 people with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. 3,300 of those have served since 1999.
The Director of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, Professor David Forbes, says studies suggest that of the 26,000 troops who have served in Afghanistan, 2 to 3 per cent will return with a mental illness.
But that number will rise as time goes on.
DAVID FORBES: Down the track there’s likely to be other people presenting. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw rates of about 8 to 10 per cent over the course of time, declaring themselves over subsequent years.
LEXI METHERELL: And that’s why early intervention is so important.
DAVID FORBES: There’s a range of factors that influence the timing of when problems present. They don’t necessarily present straight away. There’s lots of factors about military service, the comradery, the support from within your unit. There’s the structure of military service and a sense of belonging. But often when people leave the military, the adjustment process in post military life can generate and certainly can precipitate some of the difficulties in coping that might have been contained by the social support structures and routine structures of military life.
LEXI METHERELL: And are there any institutional problems at the moment, or obstacles to making sure that soldiers are supported to get those early intervention programs?
DAVID FORBES: Look, one thing I’ll say for the Department of Defence, as well as DVA (Department of Veterans’ Affairs), is that there’s been an enormous amount of effort over the course of the last five or so years, particularly in terms of efforts to reduce stigma around mental health, to improve the nature of the services available and to improve the pathways to that care.
Probably important to say that reluctance to seek help for mental health problems is an issue across the community more broadly. That by and large even within the general Australian community and international community, it’s often five to seven years before people actually seek care for their mental health problem. Even in the absence of some of those institutional organisational concern.
So I think that there’s a lot being put in place to be able to minimise stigma, encourage people to seek care. The reality is though that it is going to take continued effort and continued persistence to get the message across that it’s ok to present to care and that effective care’s available.
LEXI METHERELL: The Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson he doesn’t want the focus on how many soldiers will eventually suffer PTSD.
Rather he says he wants the department’s efforts directed towards ensuring early intervention programs are in place.
MICHAEL RONALDSON: There is a lot of work to be done, there’s got to be acknowledgement from the veterans that do have an issue, the department has got to ensure that we do have those programs in place, that the focus is on early intervention, that we get those processing times down so that we minimise the stress on people exiting the Defence Forces.
LEXI METHERELL: And you’ve travelled to Melbourne today to open the new premises of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. How central will this issue be for you?
MICHAEL RONALDSON: Well this is absolutely pivotal as far as I’m concerned. I mean, we do have a large number of young men and women returning. We’ve got to ensure that they are our primary focus and I’ll be making some further announcements in relation to that before Christmas to ensure that we sharpen the focus on mental health issues.
SHANE MCLEOD: The Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson, ending Lexi Metherell’s report.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC News’ on 10 December 2013.