2SM, Marcus Paul interview discussing veterans' mental health and suicide, interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention report, and NSW COVID-19 restrictions

Thursday, September 30 2021

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

Marcus Paul: Clinical psychologists should be employed in all Australian Defence Force bases and headquarters in an effort to address the rates of veteran suicide. This is a new preliminary report from the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and there are calls for reform of how Defence personnel transition out of active service. Well, there are a number of recommendations to address veteran suicide rates, and they’ll form the basis for a royal commission into the issue. Look, I think it’s paramount that we support our veterans. The suicide rate, Jacqui Lambie and I have discussed it on the program, along with others – it’s a rate that we really as a country need to address. It’s almost shameful. Andrew Gee, member for Calare, good morning to you, Andrew. How are you?

Andrew Gee: I’m very well, thank you, Marcus, and thanks very much for having me back on the show.

Marcus Paul: It’s my pleasure. And, look, it’s a major concern, of course, the issue of veteran suicide. I don’t quite understand it because I’ve never served and, to be honest, no one in my direct family has ever been a service man or woman. So, I can only look be in awe of these people and admire and thank them for their service but I don’t know what they go through, Andrew.

Andrew Gee: Yeah, it is very troubling and this report shows that the rate of suicide in ex-serving males who have served since 1985 is 24 per cent higher than that of Australian males. So, what it has done, it is has taken the study right back to 1985. The last report dealt with 2001 to 2018. This report goes back to 1985. But what it shows is that the long-term trend is clear. This isn’t something that has just happened. This issue has been with Australia for generations. And the rate for ex-serving females is 102 per cent higher than the rate in the general population. So, 24 per cent higher for males and 102 per cent higher for ex-serving females. We know through this report, and the report is – we have to acknowledge that this is a very harrowing report and those figures are very concerning, and they have caused and are causing a lot of angst in the defence and veteran community. But what they also show is where we need to be targeting support. And the report shows that you are at greater risk if you are medically discharged, less than five years of service, particularly less than one year of service, and for those younger ADF members who are medically discharging – for those under 30, the suicide rate was three times higher for ex-serving females and twice as high for ex-serving males. So, that shows you that the transition from military to civilian life and how we manage that is all-important.

Marcus Paul: They say clinical psychologists employed at all bases and headquarters is a possibility, perhaps dealing or certainly some kind of interaction or perhaps even a just a circuit breaker to stop the suicides. Is that something that you would entertain?

Andrew Gee: Well, we’re going to go through this report with a fine-tooth comb. With respect to the clinical psychologists, we just had a fee increase for Open Arms psychologist fees, so that has meant that we have a lot more clinical psychologists already coming on board and the net gain will be probably over 150 coming on board. So, that fee increase, which was $94.3 million for mental health providers has meant that we’ve got a lot more clinical psychologists working in the field for veterans now. So, that is really important. But we will be going through everything with a fine-tooth comb. And, look, we’ve already started on the work, so it’s not something that we need to wait for a formal response on. The report from Dr Boss is hundreds of pages but we’ve also got things going out. For example, speeding up the claims processing. Look, when I first took the job just before we all went into lockdown, I went up to Townsville and went into one of the offices where they’re processing veterans claims. I stood next to them while they were doing it, while they were taking calls. What I want to see and what I’ve directed is that the whole claims processing system be overhauled from the forms and what they look like, because I was originally told it was four or five questions but when you actually get in there, there’s a lot more than that. Then it goes through this massive chain. Some claims get diverted to different parts of Australia. It’s very cumbersome. So I’ve got a fresh set of eyes. I didn’t want it done internally. I wanted consultants coming in and we’ve engaged them now to overhaul that wholesome. That process is now underway. The whole issue of the confusing veterans legislation – I mean, you need a law degree just to work out who can claim what, what period of service –

Marcus Paul: It needs to be simplified is something that I’ve heard.

Andrew Gee: It really does, and Dr Boss who wrote that report, that was one of the big things that she wanted to see done. It is a big job, but I’ve started that process now. And then with the whole transition work, I think there’s some really good work that has already been done that we didn’t have just a few short years ago. So, for example, we’ve got transition coaches for veterans transitioning out. We’ve got specialised career support for those early leavers, the most vulnerable aged 17 to 30. We’ve also got veteran support officers on bases now, which is a real step forward. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. What I want to do is take Dr Boss’s report – so one of the things that she says is that being in the Defence Force is a lot like being an elite sportsperson in that you’re living in this elite environment; it’s highly disciplined; it’s a very much a team environment and if for some reason you are suddenly cast out of that environment, and it’s often through medical injury –

Marcus Paul: It’s hard to adjust.

Andrew Gee: Yeah, it’s hard. Like, you’re suddenly out there in the world, you don’t have those support mechanisms. And what Dr Boss was saying was that we need to start talking about transition as soon as you join the ADF. It’s not something that you do on the way out the door. Like, “Okay, you’re going to be medically discharged but and see a career coach.” It’s got to be something you start thinking about once you’re in there, because the average career in the ADF is seven to 10 years depending on what branch of service you’re in. They need to start having those conversations. What she’s saying is we need a mandatory transition course that sets out X, Y and Z. What I want to do is take her suggestions and her learnings and apply them to what we’re doing now and get the Defence team and the transition team to look at that and see what we can implement now. Because let’s face it. It’s not that hard to introduce a course and get people to –

Marcus Paul: Look, if it just saves one life, Andrew, then it’s worth it – absolutely. All right, good to have you on. Thank you very much. I know you’re doing a lot of hard work in this space and you’re only fairly new to the portfolio, but I like what I’m hearing. It’s important that we slow the stem and completely eradicate the scourge of, you know, our veterans – those who have served and protected our way of life, we need to protect them once they stop serving. And it’s good and refreshing to hear the passion in your voice talking about it, Minister. So, well done and, as you say, we’ve only just begun.

Andrew Gee: We’ve got to make sure that the families and our Defence Force personnel don’t have to go through this. I spoke to Karen Bird who was the mother of Jesse Bird who – his experience in the claims experience was absolutely appalling. She said we need to make sure that no one else goes through this. That’s what the families want to see. And the last thing I just say, Marcus, before I sign off is that if there are any Defence Force personnel or veterans that need support, we have 24 hours a day, seven days a week counselling available. It’s Open Arms on 1800 011 046. And if you want to do it anonymously, it’s Safe Zone support on 1800 142 072. Even if you don’t want formal counselling, if you just want to ring up and have a chat, please do it, because just talking about this issue has raised a lot of angst and stress and sadness and trauma for many families and many veterans.

Marcus Paul: Of course. All right, mate, just before you go, your neck of the woods, just around Oberon, again put into another snap seven-day lockdown. Let’s hope this is the last one hay?

Andrew Gee: It’s so tough. I’ve just come out of lockdown. I’m based in Orange, and we came out of lockdown just a few days ago. There’s been a run on barbershops and hairdressers. I can’t get my hair cut. But poor old Oberon had a couple of cases. I think someone had been into Sydney a few times, as far as I could gather anyway. So it seems to have cut loose there, but the good thing, the positive thing, I suppose, out of this whole COVID nightmare is that our vaccination rate out here is really top of the charts. And we’ve had the Australian Defence Force out here doing a clinic, so everyone is well over 80 per cent first dose, some are over 90 per cent; and the community has been right behind it. Once we do emerge on October 11, the positive news is I think our communities out west, in the Central West, are in a good position to deal with it but we just need to keep the vax rates rolling. We’ve got the ADF coming up to Oberon next Tuesday. And we’ve also got an ADF drive-in clinic happening, Marcus. Where else would you have a drive-through vaccination clinic in Bathurst but Mount Panorama in Pit Lane?

Marcus Paul: Of course. In Pit Lane – sounds good.

Andrew Gee: Sydney people, you can’t come out. We don’t need you coming out to Mount Panorama but local people can come out. They’ll drive through Pit Lane. They can have a car of four people and they can get vaccinated in Pit Lane with no appointments. So there you go. That’s the ADF. Love their work.

Marcus Paul: That’s good. That will certainly get people involved and interested. All right, Minister, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

Andrew Gee: Thank you, Marcus.

Marcus Paul: Really important conversation, obviously, on veterans' affairs, veterans' suicides.

** End of transcript **

Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit the Open Arms website