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Urgent systematic change needed to reduce tragic veteran suicides

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Measures to reduce stigmas and remove red tape are essential to reducing the shocking number of army, air force and naval veterans taking their own lives, says a leading Australian legal expert.  

Slater and Gordon military compensation lawyer Brian Briggs will present to a Senate hearing: Suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel on Thursday 2 February. He will propose reforms aimed at removing the unnecessary hurdles for veterans and ex-service personnel who are seeking physical and mental health support – consequently reducing the numbers who see no other choice but to take their lives.  

Mr Briggs will call for reform across four key areas; legislative reform, institutional reform, mental health measures and transition phase-focused solutions. He said for too long veterans and ex-service personnel had not been afforded the respect and support they deserved. 

At the inquiry, Mr Briggs will highlight the need for funding to either extend or remove the current timeframes, which can prevent veterans from receiving the legal, financial and health support they need. He said there were some clients who had been waiting for more than a decade for a physical health claim to be processed.

Mr Briggs will also discuss Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) statistics, taken from its annual reports, showing a 50 per cent rise in complaints about its processes from 2,021 in 2014 to 3,013 in 2015. They also show a 25 per cent drop in the number of DVA positive reviews from 964 in 2014 to 730 in 2015. 

“Our passionate military personnel dedicate their lives to protecting this country,” Mr Briggs said. “But unfortunately, they can be left without the support they need once their service is over – sometimes resulting in the most tragic loss of life.”

“Unfortunately, our military compensation system is one of the few schemes that does not include timeframes for responding to claims or for making key decisions.

“Funding for initiatives such as a 24-hour helpline, an employee assistance program, military and veterans medicine advice and a therapeutics education services program must be a priority for all governments.”

Mr Briggs will also propose that the DVA and the Department of Defence establish an official register of veteran suicides as well as the introduction of more measures to reduce mental health stigmas within the military.

He emphasised that clients regularly spoke of a negative culture – labelling those within the military with a mental illness as weak – describing the situation as a sad commentary on Australia’s defence force.

“Veterans and ex-service personnel are human beings who often see and experience things they need help with,” Mr Briggs said. “But I regularly see people who have a great fear of missing out on future deployment and career development if they seek help so they don’t seek the help they genuinely need.”