Military Mental Health - Confronting the Issue

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CDF ACM Mark Binskin delivered the fifth Order of Australia Association ADF Oration at Russell Offices in Canberra on July 20.

ACM Binskin's talk, Military mental health -- from shell-shock to PTSD and beyond, addressed the incidence of PTSD among ADF members and the ADF's determination to tackle the issue.

According to ACM Binskin, for much of the past century mental health professionals have struggled to understand the complex consequences of military service on the human psyche.

"Everyone who goes to war is changed by the experience," he said.

"Extreme fatigue and stress, combined with sustained attack or threat, can have a dramatic affect on a person's mental health and wellbeing.

"These stressors are not just confined to land battles or even combat.

They apply equally to air and maritime operations, as well as non-warlike operations, where exposure to the devastating effects of natural disaster or human suffering can be equally onerous for military personnel." ACM Binskin said historically commanders had faced a dilemma -- preserve manpower or preserve the man and, in the current context, woman.

"That is the tension between the need to maintain a fighting force and the desire to look after an individual's welfare," he said.

"In the immediate thrust of battle and under attack, the unit's collective ability to fight off the enemy and defend itself will likely override any one individual's needs. But in a long game, the individual's welfare must come first. This hasn't always been the case, particularly during WWI when shell-shocked soldiers who succumbed to their psychological distress were branded as weak and cowardly." ACM Binskin said he was aware one of the major barriers preventing people from seeking treatment was the misbelief a diagnosis of a mental health disorder such as PTSD would mean the end of their career in the ADF.

"Unfortunately, the problem is the longer someone hides their symptoms and avoids treatment, the greater the risk for this to occur," he said.

"We are gradually seeing examples where people who have undertaken rehabilitation are returning to work in the ADF.

"From July 2013 to June 2014, 813 people undertook the ADF Rehabilitation Program after being diagnosed with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety disorders, including PTSD. There is no shame in seeking help." ACM Binskin said there had never been a time in the ADF's history when so many resources had been invested into understanding and improving mental health and welfare.

"Further research, including longitudinal studies, is required to ensure we do not underestimate the risk or cost to our personnel. We need to work collaboratively beyond the ADF to build a greater understanding of military mental health." SO1 Mental Health Lt-Col Andrew Cohn said the oration by CDF highlighted the significant cultural shift in society's attitudes towards the mental health consequences of war since WWI.

"As the Chief emphasised, though, we still have a long way to go to eliminate stigma about mental health problems," he said.

"There is a lot of work being done to confront this issue and provide the best possible support to members."

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