Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq struggling to seek psychological support are turning to social media to share their experiences and vent their anger.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announced the end of Australia’s longest war during a surprise visit to Afghanistan.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) says it is still learning when it comes to providing appropriate counselling for veterans.
Some veterans are using a Facebook page set up as a forum for returned veterans to voice their frustrations.
The returned soldiers are venting about what they feel is a lack of understanding in the general public about the experiences of these latest veterans.
They are also criticising the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for their treatment of psychological conditions, such as post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
“When Defence personnel come forward with PTSD symptoms, why is ADF culture still victimising them as weak?” says one user.
“The public need to understand that PTSD is like … it has the equivalent impact of quality of life as being a paraplegic,” says another.
Social media pages like this provide an anonymous and safe environment for veterans to share their views away from the official channels.
Defence struggling to get veterans onto official support
The DVA is aware of this and says it is a good first port of call for recently returned veterans but they need to seek further help.
Dr Stephanie Hodson has served in the ADF as a psychologist for 22 years and has worked in advising the DVA on counselling services for another 10.
She says social media is helpful to a point.
“If people are actually finding that they are sharing their stories and that’s helping, that’s fine but there’s a point where if you are angry with those people around you, where you are feeling down and not engaged, at that point it’s actually really important to go to websites,” she said.
The websites she is referring to are provided by the Department and include the At Ease portal, which aims to connect veterans to further psychological services and information on suicide prevention.
She says there is a problem in getting veterans to come forward for help through these official channels.
“One of the biggest problems in coming forward to care is the person’s own feeling that in some way they’ve failed or in some way they feel weak,” she said.
Veteran says after returning home ‘it’s like no-one sees you’
Scott May is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and says many veterans are becoming increasingly disconnected from the wider community because of what they have been through.
“There was the odd comment that people would make that would ridicule what we were doing over there but at the end of the day that was my job,” he said.
“I was asked to do my job, I did my job. The political reasons behind it aren’t there for me to argue.
“I think that you go through such a unique experience and to go home, it’s almost like standing in a room and no-one sees you there and they don’t quite understand what you’re going through.”
Mr May decided to seek out further help when he was dissatisfied with Defence Force counselling he received when he returned from service.
To go home, it’s almost like standing in a room and no-one sees you there and they don’t quite understand what you’re going through. Scott May
He says it took a referral from an external veterans support group to another doctor before he was finally able to get a diagnosis of battle fatigue and depression.
“I’ve met a lot of people, met a lot of guys who are ex-Defence and it sort of seems to be the same thing that’s just happening over and over and over and over again,” he said.
“So I think Defence have tried to address it but they’re sort of falling down a little bit.”
Mr May says current services are based on the experience of veterans from previous wars, such as those who returned from the Vietnam War.
He says the experience of modern-day veterans is very different.
“Social and economic pressures come into it and the world is a vastly different world compared to what it was in the ’70s,” he said.
“I think that Defence are in the position where they are starting off behind the eight ball because they have to learn everything over again.”
Dr Hodson says what the Department has learnt from the experience of Vietnam War veterans is that many of those veterans only sought treatment 10 years later and early intervention by psychological services is essential.
She also acknowledges that in the internet age, veterans have social media at their fingertips and experts are are still learning the best way to connect them with help.
“This is a different cohort but there’s a different cohort even in terms of the way they use social media,” she said.
“A huge push in the Department has been around what do they want from us? What are the tools that we can give them, that they actually need?”
This article first appeared on the ABC Online on 30 October, 2013.