Secret epidemic could dog veterans: Snowdon

Secret epidemic could dog veterans: Snowdon

More than a decade of Australian involvement in overseas conflicts might have sparked a hidden epidemic of mental illness among members of the military, Veterans Affairs Minister Warren Snowdon has said.

Launching a campaign to encourage current and former service people to seek help if they are suffering mental health problems, Mr Snowdon said about 50,000 Australians had served in the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan over the past 10 years.

The campaign, ‘‘Bringing Awareness to Invisible Wounds’’, consists of a series of short videos that have been posted on youtube and will be distributed to Australian Defence Force personnel.

It was unclear how many could suffer illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

''The problem I think we've got is that there may be a large number of people with a hidden illness and we've got to say to them, 'It's okay to be crook'.


''Come forward if you think your behaviour has changed as a result of your service and you think that you're acting violently (or) drinking too much alcohol.''

Mr Snowdon said he thought the problem was ''in part a consequence of a decade of conflict''.

''We're now talking in the vicinity of 50,000 Australians who have served in the Middle East over the last decade. That's a large number of people. Not all of them are in service any more. And we want them to be able to say, 'If my behaviour has changed over time ... what can I do?'''

The latest government figures show 885 people who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq have suffered PTSD, depression or alcohol dependence.

The videos feature former military personnel and their families talking about the mental health problems that can follow serving in conflict. There are nine short videos on issues including alcohol and substance abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, loneliness and physical and emotional abuse.

Army Chaplain Glynn Murphy says in one video that service people can be ''strangers in a strange land'' when they return home from stressful operations.

''The little things that never would have bothered them can make them very angry ... because their values have been challenged and perhaps their values have changed and perhaps there are things they don't take for granted any more.''

The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, says in one video that human beings are ''not necessarily built'' psychologically to deal with the kinds of things defence personnel have to see and do.

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James said treatment was quite good for serving personnel and veterans identified as sick by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The problem, he said, was people who'd left the armed forces some time ago.

''Our experience ... is that nearly all the cases where people fall through the cracks are people who aren't serving and weren't sick when the left the military but get sick later on. DVA can't treat them because it doesn't know about them,'' he said.

He said former Middle East commander John Cantwell's autobiography ''Exit Wounds'' - a frank and moving account of the author's own PTSD - had made a big difference in breaking down the stigma about mental illness.

An estimated one in two Vietnam veterans developed PTSD. Mr James said it was too early to have definite figures for soldiers serving Afghanistan. The incidence of PTSD typically peaks about eight to 10 years after the heaviest period of fighting. The most intense period in Afghanistan was around 2008 and 2009, Mr James said, which meant the incidence of PTSD could peak in about five years.

David Wroe

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House

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