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Chaplain to veterans hopes new initiative will help stop veteran suicide

Supporting veterans: Veterans Care Association is already active in supporting veterans in south-east Queensland.

CATHOLICS leading the battle against veteran suicide have welcomed the appointment of an independent commissioner to investigate deaths and make recommendations on metal health and wellbeing.

Deacon Gary Stone, the man known as the Veteran’s padre, “hopes and prays” a new government initiative will combat veteran suicide, and benefit the wider community.

“Every suicide seriously impacts families and friends who also need support,” Deacon Stone (pictured), who heads the Veterans Care Association and is a former infantry officer, said.  

“For every completed suicide there are 10 others (and their associated families and friends) struggling with suicidal ideation and self-harm.”

After years of campaigning by bereaved family members, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on February 4 announced an independent inquiry to investigate more than 400 known cases of suicide since 2001.

A permanent commissioner will report back after 18 months, and will have powers to explore and recommend ways to boost mental health within Australia’s armed forces.

Welcoming the government initiative, Lt Colonel Kel Ryan, national spokesman for the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations, stressed the commissioner must come from “outside the Canberra bubble” and be in touch with young veterans and their families.

He said it was important the commissioner “looks at the entire spectrum of inter-related and complex issues which impact on the well-being of veterans and their families”.

“The big problem is the transition from military service to civilian life,” Lt Col Ryan, a Vietnam War veteran and a parishioner from St Francis Xavier, Goodna, said.

“The mental health and wellbeing of transitioning veterans is impacted by financial distress, homelessness, incarceration which sometimes leading to suicide.

“Many, in Queensland, for instance, move to isolated areas – mining towns, cities up and down the coast or inland – so one of the problems they face if they have physical or psychological problems is having access to specialists.

“Many just try to get on with their lives until, as we say, the wheels fall off.

“Many younger veterans, who, for example join the army for four to six years, that becomes their family. 

“And when they get out they don’t have a family any more and a lot of them feel lost.

“That connection, that bond they had in the military is no longer there.”

As well as isolation, Lt Col Ryan said the mental health and wellbeing of transitioning veterans was impacted by financial distress, homelessness and incarceration which sometimes led to veteran suicide. 

He praised the efforts of number of small, frontline veterans groups in tune with the challenges and already proving successful in saving lives.

These include Veterans Care Association, that operates in south-east Queensland and has gained public attention for its “Timor Awakening” program. 

VCA’s Deacon Stone, who is now chaplain to the ex-service community in south-east Queensland, said he hoped the new inquiry and an independent commissioner would recognise that a holistic approach to treating veterans works, and change the way it allocates government resources and funding.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) has been locked in legislatively to an exclusive medical (sickness) model delivered by treatment clinicians,” Deacon Stone said.

“Veterans with complex psychosocial spiritual problems have not responded well to the standard treatment model of medication and cognitive behaviour therapy.  

“They have responded well to peer support, pastoral care, forgiveness – letting go, and holistic health education. 

“Whilst every suicidal situation is unique in terms of contributing factors, the most common factors involve dealing with shame, guilt and future life purpose. 

“No medications resolve these issues. Spiritual responses can assist. 

“Despite billions of dollars been spent annually on medical treatment, no chaplaincy or pastoral care is either included or sought in any programmes funded by DVA.  

“By comparison the US DVA employs thousands of chaplains and pastoral carers.”  

Prime Minister Morrison said evidence given during the veteran suicide inquiry would remain private, unlike a royal commission.

“I think we’ve come up with a much better way that brings everybody together,” the Prime Minister said.

“This is about being forever vigilant for the care and wellbeing of our veterans.”

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