Army veteran GP reacts to suicide report recommendations

Jolyon Attwooll

3/10/2022 5:44:33 PM

The Government has apologised for the failures of ‘successive governments’ in response to an interim report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

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The risk of suicide is significantly higher among former ADF personnel.

‘I hope it is different this time.’
That is Dr Kerry Summerscales, a Queensland GP and a former Army Major reacting to the Federal Government’s response to an interim report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
In a statement made to Parliament last week, the Federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh apologised for the country’s failures.  
‘It is a great tragedy that successive Australian governments have failed those who have served our nation,’ Mr Keogh said.
‘Governments have also failed the families of those people, families who have carried a heavy burden of their own through the pain and suffering they have experienced.’
The Commission’s interim report, released on 11 August, included 13 recommendations. The Government has noted two and agreed to 11, including simplifying the compensation and rehabilitation laws and taking steps to reduce the claims backlog and improve administration.
Dr Summerscales, a former Army Major who was in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) for 30 years and now focuses on veterans’ health at her Mackay clinic, said she is pleased with the government’s decision to take up most of the recommendations.
Highlighting the fact it is now Veterans’ Health Week, she agrees that responsibility for the current situation, in which the suicide rate for veterans is significantly higher than for the wider population, stretches back a long way.
‘It’s not like this has just happened overnight,’ Dr Summerscales told newsGP.
‘It’s been going on for many decades, if we were to really be honest, probably since World War One and World War Two.’
Research carried out in 2019 found the age-adjusted rate of suicide for ex-serving women was more than double that of the general Australian female population as a whole, while ex-servicemen had the highest overall rate of 27 deaths per 100,000 people.
The interim report included recommendations for urgent and immediate action but the work of the Commission, which was announced by the Coalition government last July, is set to continue for some time.
So far, Commissioners have received more than 2,000 submissions as well as conducting 178 private sessions and hearing testimony from 208 witnesses.
Dr Summerscales believes that accountability will be key.
She has advocated strongly for the appointment of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide – there was an interim, temporary appointee last year – and remains keen to see it happen.
‘You need someone to revisit it, things change,’ she said.
‘There’s no point in having a review or commission or an inquest if there are no measurable outcomes at the end, or there’s no consequences if those things aren't put into place.’
Commissioners have noted particular concerns over the transition from military to civilian life, with approximately 6000 people leaving the ADF each year.
It is an area that Dr Summerscales agrees should be a focus. Recalling her own departure, she says it was very challenging, despite having a clear exit strategy.
‘I found it hard. I still remember sitting at my desk, getting a letter to say “this is essentially your last day in uniform”, and I burst into tears.
‘I'm sitting at my desk in my GP clinic, I had a job, I was set and I just burst into tears.’
According to Dr Summerscales, more should also be done to raise cultural awareness about veterans and their health.
‘Veterans do have their own culture,’ she said.
‘GPs need education on veterans’ health, culture, and DVA [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] literacy.
‘There are nearly 600,000 veterans across Australia. As general practitioners, our chances of bumping into one and having quite a few as patients are fairly high.’
She also believes another focus should be on an ADF culture that she says is by no means immune from bullying.
‘When we talk about [veterans’] suicide, how did they get to that point in the first place?
‘I certainly hear from quite a few of my patients that when they have raised issues within the chain of command, they’ve either been ignored at worst heckled and punished.’
The Commissioners also referenced a lack of progress on the issue in their executive summary, despite more than 50 previous reports conducted since 2000 that are relevant to the issue of suicide among serving and ex‑serving ADF members.
‘While we acknowledge that many of these reports and inquiries were about discrete topics, we have been dismayed to come to understand the limited ways that Australian Governments have responded to these previous inquiries and reports,’ the Commissioners wrote.
Can it be different this time?
With that track record, Dr Summerscales unsurprisingly says many of her patients remain sceptical about lasting change.
‘I hope it will be different,’ she said. ‘I certainly see a bit more action [this time].’
‘It’s time that Australia stood up and took responsibility, and that we actually look after our veterans and their families.’
The process for contributing to the Commission remains open with submissions being accepted until 13 October, 2023.
A final report is due by 17 June 2024.

Editor's note: This article was amended on 22 November 2022 to correct the submission deadline for the Commission.
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Dr Michael John Flynn   6/10/2022 2:23:05 PM

This makes for difficult reading. There is a need for some concept of Strategic balance. The prerennial exhortatioon for "more resouces" does not withstand the "pub test" of feasability. We (the ADF), & Govt., need to engage our fellow citizens, more honestly.