Australian Defence Force personnel feel their mental health has deteriorated over the past year amid signs of a rift between military leaders and troops.
An internal Defence survey has found the proportion of personnel who rated their own mental health to be good or very good fell from 60.8 per cent to 57 per cent in 2015. The latest survey was taken by more than 20,000 ADF members and public servants though only military personnel answered that question, with the army returning a rate of 56 per cent, the navy 57 per cent, and the air force 60 per cent, all down on 2014 figures.
It comes despite significant investment in mental health services in recent years and an ongoing dispute over whether personnel should be given annual screening. While Defence last year moved to screen members more often, especially those deemed most at risk, it favoured a “voluntary and anonymous online self-screening tool” over annual screening.
A Senate inquiry report recently added to the growing number of reviews and submissions recommending annual screening and the Turnbull government has two months to respond.
“Defence is currently considering the Senate inquiry report and its recommendations for opportunities to build on the significant work we have already undertaken,” the department said in a statement.
While pride in Defence improved last year, and more members felt a sense of belonging, there was a notable deterioration in workplace-specific results. Confidence in Defence senior leadership fell from 54.1 per cent to 49 per cent, with similar concerns in the proportion of respondents who felt valued by Defence for the work they did (down from 45.4 per cent to 42 per cent), encouraged to have a positive work-life balance (down from 57.3 per cent to 55 per cent) and trust in Defence to operate with fairness and integrity (down from 64.9 per cent to 63 per cent). The proportion of military personnel who felt they had no personal control over their career increased from 34.6 per cent to 37 per cent.
In a letter to The Australian last week, ADF Chief Mark Binskin, Vice-Chief Ray Griggs and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force responded to criticism of the ADF for its handling of the social media activity of Islamic affairs strategic adviser Captain Mona Shindy, saying they were pushing for “much needed cultural change”.
But Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James warned diversity should not be prioritised at the expense of the defence force’s other needs.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, who served as a soldier between 1989 and 2000, will use the upcoming federal election to campaign for Defence personnel to be given greater support.
This article first appeared on ‘The Australian’ on 19 April 2016.