OPINION – GRAHAM RICHARDSON :Our nation’s finest now suffering in silence as suicide rates rise

10 Jul 2017

The Australian July 9, 2017

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Among other things, Townsville is a garrison town. If soldiers and their families are doing it tough in a city where unemployment is more than 11 per cent, twice the national average, resources here are really stretched to try to give them support.

Too many veterans are falling through the cracks here and in the rest of the country. In a city like this the result of the lousy effort we have made to look after those who have served their country in war zones from Korea to Malaya, to Vietnam, to Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and Timor is broken marriages, domestic violence, homelessness and, worst of all, high rates of suicide.

In raw numbers there are more than 10,000 army and airforce personnel in Townsville and an even greater number of veterans and their families.

Soldiers have different reactions to post traumatic stress disorder but few veterans are unaffected.

It is difficult to track the number of suicides because while the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has 300,000 on their books, there are twice that number not in the system.

Veteran support groups have great difficulty in getting exact numbers of suicides. The number most widely used is 78 last year with 39 so far this year meaning little or no ­improvement this year.

I took an interest in this problem and spoke to a number of veterans about two years ago. Sadly while I communicated with two veterans affairs ministers, I achieved little because I spent the last eight months in hospital after my cancer operation and then had a long recovery. I spoke to men who lived as hermits, abused drugs and alcohol, who had no real hope of being in a good enough mental state to be able to work.

All had one thing in common — they complained the DVA treated too many of them very poorly indeed. When I put some complaints to Stuart Robert during his short tenure as minister, there was some improvement in the way the department treated its clients. But it wasn’t long before their behaviour regressed and I wasn’t around to push the envelope a bit further.

Some 11 months ago the Prime Minister announced a trial of methods to reduce the number of suicides. At the time it was deemed a “priority”. It is only over the last month or so that any sign of the promised “priority” trial has been detected. The announcement came just days before a big article on soldier suicides was about to appear. Therein lies the problem. Taking care of veterans is only ­important when the lack of decent care has a light shone upon it.

Politicians love to stand next to the troops when the cameras are rolling. They bask in the glory that always surrounds those courageous enough to fight for their country. When there are no lights or cameras though, the easiest Australians to forget are the very same ones the pollies love to be seen to support.

Australia is welshing on its debt to our veterans and it’s about time we paid up. If there are real policies to be developed on this front, it would not be a bad idea to throw some of the money in the direction of Townsville where soldiers, veterans and their families make up more than 20 per cent of the population.