Mental Health in the Australian Army: A PerspectiveBy Luke Hagerty April 19, 2021
The epidemic of veteran suicide is appalling and something needs to be done.
The purpose of this short article is to share my personal perspective on mental health within the Army and to provide anecdotal observations and some personal, ‘lived experiences’. It is also written to provide awareness to chains of command who may be dealing with someone who is suffering with a mental illness and provide some guidance for those dealing with a mental illness themselves. It is hoped that this article raises some awareness around the stigma of mental health and provides the chain of command and sufferers alike with some hints on how to manage and best cope with a difficult situation. Anyone who requires mental health support is reminded that there are a multitude of resources out there both in Defence and external to Defence and that, in the first instance, seeking professional help is recommended.
Imagine a scenario where you are driving to work and the ‘check engine’ light comes on. What would you do? Would you keep driving in the hope that it just fixes itself, call into work and tell your supervisor you will be late as your car has broken down or in the most severe of circumstances, call your vehicle a ‘linger’ and say things like ‘why can’t you just get over it’ or ‘you’re just doing this to get out of driving me to work’ followed by over aggressively driving to punish the offending vehicle which, inevitably, leads to more significant damage? The last scenario seems pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? So why do we (sometimes) treat our soldiers this way when they feel as though their mental health might be getting out of hand?
Tips for Commanders
Treat every person who presents with a mental health issue seriously and with compassion. If you are incapable of compassion or empathy, then treat them exactly how you would treat your own vehicle when the check engine light comes on; take it seriously and direct them to seek professional help. Ask them if they have a support network in place and if not, ask them what the chain of command can do for them at this time. They may only require one hour a week to see a psychologist to get them going again, which in the short term, is not too much to ask.
What not to do:
Tell them to ‘just get over it’, ‘stop being weak’ or act without compassion or empathy
In some circumstances, approaching the chain of command to inform them that you are suffering from a mental illness, is not the first step that you have taken. Typically, the individual may have already approached a mental health professional, or spoken to family and friends about their concerns. In other cases, the individual may have been dealing with this crisis in silence for years and needs real help. If someone has been diagnosed with clinical depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental illnesses, the chain of command acting without compassion is the last thing the person needs. Your first thought as a commander should not be ‘how is this going to effect the organisation’ or ‘does this mean the individual cannot do their required tasks.’ In my lived experience, dedication to duty and the conduct of my role was first and foremost in my mind; the thought of letting the team down due to my illness was a point of anguish for me and I would not have approached the chain of command if the situation was not as dire as it was. It’s best for a commander to assume that every individual has this thought process in mind and no amount of telling someone to ‘just get over it’ is going to fix it. Real help from mental health professionals and a supportive workplace does. I was lucky my organisation was so supportive.
Begin your first sentence, after someone tells you they are having trouble, with “have you tried…”
In my experience, there was nothing more belittling than people trying to provide a ‘one shot’ fix all solution like ‘have you tried going for a run’ or ‘have you tried yoga?’. For clinically diagnosed mental health disorders, there are a number of remedies and these generally involve professional intervention including therapy and pharmaceutical intervention. You wouldn’t ask someone with a broken leg if they have tried going for a run to fix it. The only exception to this piece of advice is if your sentence beginning with ‘have you tried…’ and ends with ‘gaining professional mental health support?’. This question should be followed with questions regarding their support network and what can the organisation do for them during this time.
Overly coddle or ‘wrap them in cotton wool’
Just because someone is receiving mental health support for a period of time does not mean they are gone for good. Just like a vehicle you send away for maintenance after an issue, the person can come back and provide real, dedicated support to the organisation; however, you need to be aware of the individual's vulnerability and perhaps check on that person a little more closely than others. In some cases, an individual will return to work stronger for the experience of dealing with a mental health issue. They may be more self-aware in terms of their warning signs, have a better structure for maintaining a healthy mindset and subsequently provide a greater level of output than prior to their illness. The stigma of mental illness being the ‘end of the road’ for someone’s military career needs to end. People can achieve a level of ‘post-traumatic growth’ as a result of their mental illness and there are numerous peer-reviewed articles supporting this statement.
What to do:
Adhere to the requirements in policy and Defence leadership attributes and be compassionate.
Tips for the Individual
Notice the warning signs
A lot of the information regarding mental health revolves around noticing the warning signs but this can be very difficult for someone who has never dealt with a mental health issue. Warning signs to watch for include how much you’re drinking and importantly, why you are drinking; this can often be the first warning sign. A drop in personal dress and bearing, or a reduction in physical fitness is another warning sign. Repeated, disturbing dreams or images about an incident you thought hadn’t bothered you, or being short tempered can also be good warning signs, but also your family and friends can be great indicators too. Instead of someone asking “are you ok?” perhaps family and friends could follow that up with “I’ve noticed you seem…”. It is then up to you to act on their concerns, or not. There is a substantial amount of personal responsibility in recognising when you need help and then seeking it out.
Seek help sooner rather than later and inform your chain of command as soon as you feel comfortable
If in doubt, book an appointment with a mental health professional and do it sooner rather than later. Whilst it might feel good to talk to close friends and family, they are, more than likely, not mental health professionals and aside from comforting you, cannot provide you with a treatment plan and options to get you better again. Speak to a mental health professional and lay it all out on the table. Most importantly; be honest. There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of 'that which you most wish to find is in the place you least wish to look'. Being honest could possibly be the best thing you do for yourself and your own health and wellbeing. It could be the thing you least wish to address that is the thing that is troubling you most.
Inform your chain of command so they are aware of your situation. If they give you a response similar to points one or two in the tips for commanders, then find someone else, someone you trust and have them advocate for you. Strong leaders are compassionate and know and care for their subordinates. Seek these people out in your organisation. They are there, even if you sometimes think they aren’t.
Absolutely dedicate yourself to the recommendations made by your health professional
Take responsibility for your treatment and own it. Listen to the advice, dedicate yourself to the implementation of the treatment strategies and do whatever it takes to get better. Don’t let anything get in your way. Your life is the most important thing to you, cherish it and do whatever it takes to make your situation better. This is the best way to getting back to being a soldier and getting back to serving this great nation of ours.
We all need to look out for each other as we are not machines; regardless of rank, we are all humans who need to demonstrate compassion and empathy for one another and no exercise or training milestone is worth the life of any Australian soldier. If my personal experience can reach out and help one other person, then it was well worth sharing.
Cove Team comment:
This is a personal opinion piece. If you would like to investigate the Defence mental health portal, you can access it via the DPN using this link: http://drnet/People/WHS/Mental-Health/Pages/Psychological-Mental-Health.aspx
If you or someone you know is in need of help, click on the following link: https://www1.defence.gov.au/adf-members-families/health-well-being/servi... or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If your matter is urgent, call 000.