Royal commission into veteran suicide only one piece of the puzzle

Morgan Liotta

20/04/2021 3:05:03 PM

A GP and former Army Major believes it needs to occur in conjunction with the National Commissioner, to ensure recommendations are implemented.

Ms Finney holds framed photograph of her son
Julie-Ann Finney holds a framed photograph of her son at a rally to protest veteran suicide outside Parliament House in Canberra. (Image: AAP)

The Federal Government’s announcement of a royal commission into veterans’ suicide comes after a sustained campaign waged by the families of soldiers who have died by suicide, along with support from former soldiers and a number of MPs.
‘Finally, the voices of veterans will be heard. Finally, families can stand up and share their stories,’ Julie-Ann Finney, whose son David took his own life, said of the announcement.
‘Today is about veterans. The veterans fighting every day to make it through to the next. The veterans who we have lost too soon, who live on in too many broken hearts.’
But, GP and former Army Major Dr Kerry Summerscales has said the royal commission must occur in conjunction with the National Commissioner [for Defence and Suicide Prevention], to ensure there is scope to return and gauge whether recommendations have been implemented.
‘Otherwise it is just another report that can be filed away with no consequences,’ she told newsGP

‘We need someone to ask, “Did you implement it? No? Why not?”.’
Under the current plan, the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide is set to compliment the newly-created National Commissioner, and examine the systemic issue of suicide of Australian Defence Force (ADF) members and veterans. It will also track the experiences of ADF members and veterans who may be at risk of suicide, as well as of those transitioning from active service.
The fight for a royal commission began more than three years ago, when Ms Finney started a petition, calling the rate of suicide among ADF members and veterans ‘a national tragedy’.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had initially resisted the establishment of a royal commission, said that suicide prevention is a key priority for the Government and the establishment of a royal commission is the ‘first step in the healing process.’
‘We have always recognised that the rate of suicide of [ADF] members and veterans is unacceptably high,’ he said.
‘In recognising the sacrifices made by our serving and former members and their families on behalf of the nation, we owe it to members, veterans and their families to continue to take action.’
The royal commission’s final terms of reference will be determined following a period of consultation with the veteran community and state and territory governments.
It is expected to examine the systemic issues and contributing risk factors relevant to defence and veteran suicide, including:

  • contribution of pre-service, training, service, transition and post-service issues
  • relevance of service, posting history and rank of the ADF member or veteran
  • manner of recruitment into the ADF and subsequent transition
  • availability, quality and effectiveness of health, wellbeing and support services.
Details on how information about individuals is shared and how their mental and physical health are captured during enlistment and during and after service will also be examined.
Importantly, the risk factors of defence members and veterans who have attempted or contemplated suicide or have other lived experiences of suicide will be a focus of the inquiry, as well as assessing the quality and availability of support services for families and colleagues affected by a suicide.
But the families of soldiers who took their own lives want to make sure the right individuals and organisations lead the royal commission. Veteran advocate and Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie agrees that the Government needs to consult experts rather than service organisations that ‘don’t represent us’ on the draft terms of reference.
Dr Summerscales also agrees.
‘Families no doubt will be happy with the announcement; however, it is imperative that the correct people are engaged,’ she said. 
‘Veterans and their families need to be engaged, listened to, and open and frank discussions need to occur. 
‘In addition, this needs to occur with professionals and those who have knowledge and research to support their point of view to reduce ADF and veteran stress and suicide.’
Previous research and proven knowledge needs to be combined with new research, according to Dr Summerscales, to assess factors impacting ADF members’ and veterans’ mental health.
‘And not just deployments and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],’ she said. ‘Moral injury needs to be assessed, along with a myriad of other factors contributing to suicide.’  
Prime Minister Morrison said the royal commission will bring opportunities to promote the understanding of suicide risks, and protective and rehabilitative factors in the ADF and general community, by engaging with ADF members and veterans who have attempted or contemplated suicide, or have other lived experiences of suicide.
The national commissioner will have a forward-looking role, including overseeing the implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations.
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