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Will a royal commission into veteran suicide address the larger issue?

Australia’s service personnel answer the call to protect the nation and its interests – with single-minded dedication and commitment to keeping Australia secure. However, when they return from far-flung combat zones or from responding to humanitarian disasters, they face another battle, one the nation needs to do more on to support them through, writes Chris Rhyss Edwards of Soldier.ly.

As a veteran, I want to go on record to say I support the aims and intent of a royal commission into veteran suicides. But, I’m saddened that it could cost $100 million, take five years, and drag families who’ve suffered the loss of sons and daughters through even more hours of unnecessary pain most likely without any thought to the emotional wringer this will put them through – for what we ‘hope’ is a set of findings that will effect real change… though likely not. It’s going to get ugly.

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In recent years, the public’s become more aware of the suicide rate in Australia, likely because of increasing news coverage of veterans who’ve safely made it home from war zones, only to take their own lives for all manner of complex reasons I hope the commission comes to understand.

The statistics are sobering.

We’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than fighting in Afghanistan, and – on average – we suffer another veteran death by suicide every four days. That’s why I am grateful the public outrage is finally catching up to the redacted outrage in our community. But, if this royal commission solely focuses on veterans’ lives lost by suicide, or almost lost (like me) through suicide attempts, then we’re missing the larger point.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians 15 to 44 years of age. Yes, one segment of the veteran community sits at twice the national average when it comes to death by suicide, but our deaths make up only a fraction of the circa 3,000 suicides in this country each year.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of undertaking an official inquiry to understand why we lose around 80-100 veterans each year. That’s why I support the intent of Julie-Ann Finney’s petition as it’s attracted much-needed attention and support for change in our community that’s been too long coming.

The royal commission’s findings can’t come soon enough, because by the time they hand down their findings in five to seven years, roughly 600+ veterans will have died by suicide, and another 6,500+ will have planned to, or tried to, die by their own hand.

If the royal commission must go ahead, then why doesn’t the government serve the entire nation – rather than the 2 per cent of us who’ve served the nation in uniform and increase the scope to focus on our national suicide crisis? Likewise, why not include all first-responders and workers in industries that are exposed to trauma and stressful environments? Absolutely, we need to answer the one question the government seems to have been reluctant to ask: how many veterans die by suicide each year? But we also need to know why so many ‘regular’ civilian teenagers and adults die by their own hand every year in the lucky country.
Knowing these number puts everyone on notice.

In the veteran community, it’s my hope that the royal commission also clearly reveals that the government’s current model for supporting veterans needs a dramatic overhaul. It’s likely (if they dig deep enough) that they will discover that the government – however well-intentioned, and for all the good it’s doing for a good percentage of the veterans and their families that are engaging with it – is inadvertently playing a role in some of these deaths.

I don’t make this claim lightly.

In the US, data reveals that veterans engaging with Veterans Affairs for mental health reasons are twice as likely to die by suicide. Some of these men and women in the US literally died of frustration, dealing with an oftentimes protracted support process. Others tried and simply couldn’t get the support they needed. The ABC revealed in March that veteran crisis help calls went unanswered due to DVA being short on counsellors to meet the demand, so it’s not a huge leap to consider that some of our veterans died because our current system failed them.

The commission should equally dig as deep into the data for the national population. Knowing the answer to these ugly questions will provide essential data points that must define the foundation and scope of a royal commission’s impending actions. Because when we know how many men and women died by suicide, what contributing factors led to their untimely deaths, and what support they needed, wanted, sought, and found – or didn’t find only then we can start looking to shape policies and programs to deploy at the right time and place to do the most good.

One potential quick win in the royal commission’s undertakings would be to engage the general population, sooner rather than later. Invite those families directly affected by suicide, attempted suicide, or suicidal ideation to participate in a vox populi process via a national hotline that empowers them to share rare insight that would reveal vital information that could well lead to shaping solutions, programs and policy that would save lives.

Allowing a wider audience to engage with this investigative process to contribute their grassroots insight into their loss could shape the royal commission’s national research agenda. Having said that, my final question is, do we really need a royal commission to accomplish the above?

From a financial standpoint, a royal commission is an expensive process. From a human standpoint, we don’t yet seem to be asking whether it’s the right thing to do to retraumatise these families who’ve been through so much already, even if they are the people asking for it?

There has to be a better way.

Speaking as a veteran, I’m a little ashamed we are viewing the suicide of a veteran as more important than the suicide of a civilian. We volunteered to serve this country, to defend and protect all that it holds most dear, most significant of which is its populace. If we must have a royal commission, then my suggestion is we hold one that focuses on the national interest. That’s what my brothers-in-arms fought and died for – some overseas, some here at home.

By all means, dig into why our Diggers are taking their lives, but please also take steps to protect the populace of the country we once volunteered to protect.

Chris Rhyss Edwards is the founder and CEO of Soldier.ly and a proud veteran who recently spoke with Defence Connect about the importance of supporting veterans, and the role technology can play in preventing veteran suicide.

Will a royal commission into veteran suicide address the larger issue?
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