ASPI Commentary: The mental health epidemic threatening Australia’s security

1 Feb 2024

As it prepares Australia to defend itself in a contested region, the ADF has put the call out to young people to join—to achieve its goals, it needs to recruit 18,500 more people of serving age by 2040.

Young people in Australia can seem an enigma to marketing minds and the labour market is no exception. Specifically, recruiters are neglecting a rapidly growing phenomenon affecting many Australian young people—mental illness.

Not only are distressed young people less likely to do something as difficult (if rewarding) as joining the armed forces than if they were feeling well, but they are also actively barred from exploring this option. According to Defence’s supplementary submission to a Senate Standing Committee on suicide prevention among veterans—a ‘current psychiatric condition’, defined by diagnosis in the last 12 months, is currently an exclusion condition in a defence force recruiting process.

But here’s the issue, 4.2 million people meet this criteria, according to the National Study of Health and Wellbeing conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And with the ADF hoping to get more women into uniform, it’s especially concerning that 24% of females surveyed in that study met this exclusion criteria.

And even this understates Defence Force Recruiting’s woes. These numbers are even worse among its biggest target market—young people.

Among those aged 16-24 years, almost two in five (39.6%) had an ‘active’ mental health diagnosis in 2020-21.

For females in this age group, that number soared again, to almost half (46.6%). As it stands, this exclusion criterion makes more than a third of young Australians unable to serve in the ADF.

Defence Force Recruiting likes to paint life in the army as exciting and one of a kind. Announcing their recent campaign, ‘Live a story worth telling’, a leader described Defence personnel’s lived experiences as ‘filled with laughter, joy, sometimes tears and excitement.’

While this is certainly true for some members, and no two experiences of any career are the same, it only tells one side of the story. Defence needs to be more transparent about the psychological difficulties members can face during and after their careers.


Author: Patrick Cooney – an editor of The Strategist. Image: Department of Defence.