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Senator Wright speaks to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Mental Health and Other Measures) Bill 2014

Excerpt from Senate Hansard: Thursday, 19 June 2014.

Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Mental Health and Other Measures) Bill 2014

Second Reading

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (13:17): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Mental Health and Other Measures) Bill 2014, and, as the spokesperson for veterans' affairs for the Australian Greens, I am also very pleased to support this bill and its implications for veterans' access to mental health services. This bill will amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to effect changes which will promote the mental health and wellbeing of current and former members of the Australian Defence Force.

The area of veterans' mental health is critically important. We know that veterans and their families face unique challenges relating to mental health and wellbeing which can be complex, debilitating and intergenerational. We know that veterans from past conflicts, such as the Vietnam War, have suffered, and their partners, carers and families have suffered with them also, often silently.

We know that there are many men and women returning from overseas deployments in the Middle East and closer to home, and we must ensure that we do everything we can to look after this newest generation of veterans. Their service is unlike anything we have seen before, in the very different context of modern warfare. They have been on more deployments than in any previous conflict. There are also an increasing number of female veterans, and we simply do not know enough about the new challenges they will face as they reintegrate into civilian life. We also know that their partners and their families will face unique challenges, as they carry out crucial, but often unrecognised and underappreciated, roles as carers.

This bill brings in a variety of amendments to current legislation governing veterans' entitlements and compensation. It will expand the eligibility for non-liability health care to include individuals with peacetime service who were discharged because of invalidity or because of physical or mental incapacity to perform their duties.

Eligibility will also be expanded to include individuals with alcohol use disorder and other substance use disorders. This is important because we must recognise the prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse amongst veterans, and the links of these to mental ill-health, and, in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. We have known for many years that veterans can struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse, and it is also important that these will now be recognised as mental health conditions, linked to their service. Veterans from decades-old conflicts, and their families, have long known of this link, and we are now seeing this manifest in the newer generations of the veterans' community, unfortunately. These addictions have obvious effects on the veteran and their family, but they can also contribute to criminality, homelessness and domestic violence, factorswhose prevalence is often underestimated or ignored in the veteran community. These veterans are in need of help, as are their families.

The bill will also expand eligibility of the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, the VVCS, to include current and former members who served during peacetime in the border protection service or in an Australian or overseas disaster zone. It will expand eligibility also to members involved in training accidents, members who were medically discharged, and submariners. Many of these people were previously unable to access services through the VVCS. This is important because it recognises the unique and important contribution of these groups.

These men and women have served on our behalf, and often suffer because of this service, so we have a duty to care for them and ensure that they are given the best support for their requirements. The Greens have always said that if we are prepared to enlist people in the defence forces, we are obliged to care for them properly. It is a huge responsibility to ask members of the community to serve on our behalf in situations that are often perilous or dangerous, and it is imperative that we then take that responsibility seriously and cater for their needs if they are injured in that situation.

The bill will also expand circumstances in which young people are taken to be wholly dependent on a member of the Defence Force. It will do this by including eligible young people for whom the member is liable to provide child support.

Among other amendments, the bill will also enable the Chief Executive Officer of Comcare to be nominated for appointment to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, and various functions of the Veterans' Review Board. This bill makes technical and administrative amendments on a variety of areas which will go some way to promote the mental health of members of our veteran community, including partners and families the veterans. For these reasons the Greens are pleased to support this bill. However, we must ask ourselves: are we doing enough to support our veterans and their families? Are we, in this place and in Australia more generally, doing enough to look after these men, women, their partners, carers and family members? Are we looking after all groups and adequately ensuring that services are responsive and appropriate for all? Are we doing enough to look after partners and families, who are a critical and often forgotten part of the picture?

The Greens strongly maintain that if, as a society, we are prepared to take the momentous and grave decision to send men and women to serve on our behalf in situations of danger and conflict, then we do have a grave responsibility to care for them properly on their return. They do face unique challenges, and so do their families as a result of their loved one's service, but they do not always receive the care and support they deserve.

Carers play a crucial role in the welfare and support of veterans, and they do that on behalf of the entire society. The evidence shows us that the partners and families of veterans are also susceptible to challenges with their own health and mental health as a result of their loved one's service. The Brain and Mind Research Institute reported that partners of Vietnam veterans have mental illnesses at levels 20 to 30 times higher than the general population. In 2005 a study at the University of Melbourne reported that psychological disorders affect partners and children of veterans at substantially higher rates than the non-veteran population and carry an associated risk of cardiovascular and other physical diseases. Veterans' children are reported to be at risk of higher rates of various congenital birth problems and health problems. Long-term studies show that being the partner or child of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD is a predictor of mental disorders, which can in turn affect grandchildren.

This morning I attended a Parliamentary Friends of Mental Illness breakfast and heard from young people who had been carers of parents with a mental illness. One young woman, Johanna, spoke eloquently and movingly about her experience of caring for two parents, both of whom had served in the ADF and both of whom were suffering from depression and PTSD. She had been a carer since she was five years old. She said that, effectively, her childhood had finished at five years. She is now a young woman in her early 20s. She also indicated that she has experienced depression. It is not surprising. She is struggling to do year 12; she is not able to attend school much of the time because she needs to be there for her parents, whom she loves dearly. She said that both parents are rarely at home at the same time because one will be in hospital when the other is not and vice versa. These are the children and families of veterans. As a society, we need to make sure that we are looking after them adequately.

It is reported that suicide levels amongst veterans' children are up to three times higher than in the rest of the Australian population. So the Australian Greens want to see effective mental health strategies which are responsive to the changing face of the veteran community and the people who are supporting them. To do this we need research into emerging issues and groups such as the specific needs of female veterans and the intergenerational effects of service on children and grandchildren. We also need innovative peer-based mental health support which will tackle stigma, which is one of the key barriers to veterans and their families seeking thehelp that they need. We need high-quality research into the training and preparation that is optimal for both veterans and their families before they are deployed—prophylactic training. Partners and families have told me frequently that they felt underprepared and unaware of the possible mental health risks to their loved ones. In addition, there is increasing evidence about measures that can be taken to build resilience and protect against conditions like PTSD. It is incumbent on us as a community to embrace the best practices before we send people away in our name.

One of the things I hear most from members of the Vietnam veterans and their families is: 'Don't let what happened to us happen to them. Make sure you look after these young people.' We must make sure that we look after our newest veterans and their families and that we do not fail them in the way that, arguably, we failed previous generations of those who served Australia. The Australian Greens stand with the veterans to call for a strong and compassionate plan that meets their mental health and broader needs. This legislation goes some way towards that. The Greens will be supporting the bill.


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