With much ink already spilled on the merits of a royal commission into veteran suicide, it’s helpful to recap what we know and what we don’t know about the issue itself, explains veteran turned federal parliamentarian Luke Gosling, OAM.
We know that, since 2001, we’ve lost at least 10 times more diggers to suicide than in Afghanistan.
We also know that our serving and veteran suicide rate is not diminishing — it’s growing. It doubled from 19 in 2001 to 42 in 2017 and I’m aware of four lost this past week alone.
We know that if nothing changes, we risk losing another 600 veterans to suicide and have 6,500 more plan or try to take their life in the next seven years as some estimated here.
We know, and I well recall, that the transition from uniformed to civvie life can be bruising. And many studies corroborate that suicide rates spike around the time of transition. And we know this is far from being just an Australian problem.
Our US ally lost 60,000 veterans to suicide over the past decade. That’s 6,000 per year at a rate of 22 a day. Proportionally speaking, if the ADF were the size of the US Army we’d be losing 1,140 members to suicide each year or three a day. Our losses are greater than the UK veteran suicide rate of 309 lives lost between 1998 and 2017, which, unlike Australia’s, is on a downward trajectory.
Comparing our veteran suicide rate with other countries’ shows there is a wide range of possible outcomes for the journey from service to civilian life. This could at least partly be explained by varying levels of post-reintegration veteran support services and differing policies.
Among other things, a royal commission could investigate best practices to find out what does and doesn’t work. That’s what we know about veteran suicide. What we don’t know is just as concerning. For one, we don’t know how many veterans suffer from suicidality or mental health issues like PTSD.
We may not know the true scale of veteran suicides, with veterans’ families and friends reporting consistently higher numbers than official figures.
And we don’t know the exact ratio between the majority of veterans who transition well to civilian life relative to the too many who struggle, become unwell or the estimated 6,000 a year who end up homeless.
I personally support calls for a royal commission not just because I’m a veteran or because I’ve lost veteran mates to suicide. I support it because the evidence overwhelmingly supports the case for a royal commission.
This month, the Labor Party supported a groundswell of calls for the government to enact a royal commission. This isn’t partisan politics. We listened to Julie-Anne Finney and her 271,000 supporters who have been campaigning for this inquiry and we read the report in the issue by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The merits of a royal commission are clear when lined up against the alternatives.
This is the heavy artillery of inquiries. It is designed to ask the hard questions on issues of national importance and get answers whether we like them or not.
It’s impartial. It is held at arm’s length from all possible political, institutional, career and cultural pressures, meaning it can be frank and fearless. DVA and Defence are not the bad guys; they do amazing work to support our troops and veterans. But they simply don’t have the luxury of sidestepping all potential pressures that could affect their findings.
A royal commission can be holistic and set terms of reference that capture all aspects of the life of a service man and woman, from enlistment to service, separation, reintegration into civilian life and life-long welfare. As we know, it’s not clear that federal departments currently have that information so a new process will be required. Royal commissions can do this very well.
More of the same simply isn’t working. The problem is worsening, and new thinking is needed.
Some veterans have suggested we would be better served by a royal commission with a broader mandate that studies suicides across all society. Proponents of this option argue that there’s nothing distinct about veteran suicide. Our suicide rate in Australia is a national shame, however multiple studies in Australia and elsewhere corroborate that veteran suicide is very different and abnormally high.
It is ingrained in Defence to put others first — in this case civilians and emergency workers — and veterans last. This is a living symbol of the military values system that continues to be my compass in life.
But this is not the right context for self-denial.
When veterans are committing suicide at rates twice the civilian average in the case of women and men under 30, downplaying the seriousness of the crisis may encourage those who are hurting to hide their pain.
Others have claimed we face a binary choice between either investigating veteran suicide and ways to stop it, or supporting core veteran support services.
Leaving aside the fact that the cost of the royal commission will not be borne by the DVA budget, one of the key points made in the June Productivity Commission report is that throwing a generous amount of money at veteran support services hasn’t proven effective.
It’s true, as some have pointed out, that a royal commission won’t bring our lost veterans back. But it may help many, many others of our brothers and sisters who have served.
We’ve exhausted all credible alternatives.
There are many veterans and families suffering this Christmas and we don’t have all the answers we need. It’s time for a royal commission.
Luke Gosling is a third-generation veteran and Labor MP for Solomon in the Northern Territory.