More than 370 current or former RAAF personnel have attempted suicide, self-harm or had suicidal thoughts since 2015.
Last year alone, 100 personnel suffered some sort of “suicide-related event”, the highest count of all three services.
The findings were among those revealed in the interim report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which is attempting to find the causes and solutions as to why more ex-servicemen and woman are taking their lives compared to the general public.
Suicide is a serious area for concern in the RAAF and across the greater Australian Defence Force (ADF), with at least 1,600 recorded deaths since 1997.
Following the commencement of the Royal Commission, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has released a report — ‘Serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force members who have served since 1985: suicide monitoring 1997 to 2020’ — revealing the suicide rates of ADF and ex-ADF personnel, adding an additional five years of data.
“It is important we have a full picture of the problem, to understand where and how to best direct efforts to prevent suicide, and to improve the lives and wellbeing of the Defence and veteran community,” said Commission chair Nick Kaldas.
According to the AIHW report, the number of serving and ex-serving ADF members to die from suicide between 1997 and 2020 was at least 1,600, with 79 in 2020 alone. The previous report said there had been 1,273 suicide deaths from 2001 to 2019.
The AIHW’s latest findings revealed that suicide rates for currently serving ADF service men and women are actually lower than the general Australian population:
- 49 per cent lower for permanent male ADF members
- 46 per cent lower for reserve male ADF members
However, ex-serving ADF members suffer from greatly elevated suicide rates:
- 27 per cent higher for ex-serving ADF males
- 107 per cent (or 2.07 times) higher for ex-serving ADF females, of which the Air Force has the most
The report also found that those who are discharged involuntarily due to medical issues are three times as likely to die by suicide than those who leave on their own.
“These aren’t just numbers, but people who tragically felt they could not go on,” said Commissioner Kaldas, expressing that the rate is a major concern.
“Behind every death by suicide are family members, friends and colleagues whose lives are forever changed.”
The Air Force Association has outlined its priority objectives for veterans’ support, stating that “Any compensation and rehabilitation system for veterans and their families must be ‘fit for purpose’, recognising the unique nature of military service.
“Its principal aim is to return the veteran who has suffered injury or illness due to service duty to his/her former physical and/or mental health state and when this is not possible provide life-long treatment and financial support.”
Instead, veterans are too often left to fend for themselves, fighting for work without the belief that their skill set is valuable and losing their support network of friends.
Alongside a list of recommendations, such as a push for the government to implement suggestions made by the Productivity Commission’s ‘A Better Way to Support Veterans’ report, the Royal Commission is encouraging current and ex-serving ADF members and their families to make submissions that would help it to direct efforts to lower suicide rates in the defence community.
“We want to hear about all aspects of the military, including recruitment, training, deployment, culture, injury management and transition into civilian life,” said Commissioner Kaldas.
“Coming forward isn’t always easy, but your story can help us to make the changes needed to better support serving and ex-serving members.”
One former airman, Sergeant Dan Tellam made his submission to the Royal Commission in October. Tellam spent a period of 30 years in the RAAF and was discharged on medical grounds in 2015.
Tellam, who survived a suicide attempt, said that a contributing factor that caused him to try take his own life was his treatment by senior officers in the RAAF.
“Even though I did love defence, it was unfair how you could be treated. You could be harassed and bullied within defence [and] it was part of the job,” said Tellam.
The final Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide report is due in June 2024.
If you have been affected by issues in this story and require urgent help, please call 000. The Suicide Call Back Service, on 1300 659 467, also offers 24-hour counselling via telephone, online and video.