The mental health effects of service

Serving your country on the battlefield is one of the toughest jobs around. Not only do our soldiers stare down the threat of death or physical harm, but for some veterans, the conflict continues beyond the battlefield. Some current serving and ex-ADF members and their families endure ongoing mental health battles like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), health risk behaviours such as increased use of alcohol and medications and other conditions as a result of their service.

Returning to civilian life

Time spent in uniform is much more than just a job – it’s a way of life. After proudly serving their country and trained to be self-reliant and highly capable, the transition back into civilian life can be traumatic in itself.  Some of the challenges may include:

  • Adjusting to a new pace. Compared to the highly regimented and structured military life, civilian life can seem very different, chaotic and uncertain.
  • Lack of certainty. Most basic needs such as food, accommodation and money were provided when in service, but in civilian life you need to take care of this yourself.
  • Loss of camaraderie. Long term friendships based on shared experiences can be lost, leading to feelings of isolation and disconnection. Lack of common ground with those who have not served can make forging new connections difficult.
  • Employers not recognising skills. So many of the skills gained in the armed services are highly transferrable, but many civilians may not recognise that yet.
  • Feelings of resentment. Some members may harbour feelings of anger and resentment if they left prematurely due to an injury or other reason.
  • A comparative lack of excitement can come across as monotony to some veterans.

Mental health and emotional challenges

We’ve written about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before as it can apply to the general population, but the unique experience of current and ex-ADF members makes for a particularly tough battle.  The Department of Veterans’ Affairs describes PTSD as: “a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, including those that threaten life. For military veterans, the trauma may relate to direct combat duties, being in a dangerous war zone, or taking part in peacekeeping missions under difficult and stressful conditions.”[1]

The range of mental health and emotional challenges experienced by returned ADF members are essentially a result of different ways of coping with trauma. Some people will recall and re-experience traumatic events of war in different ways, such as when dreaming, thinking or closing their eyes, when using alcohol or drugs and even during normal wakefulness.

Symptoms may include:

  • Hallucinating
  • Strong reactions to anything that reminds them of the trauma and avoidance of anything they associate with it.
  • Inability to form close bonds with loved ones.
  • Hindrance of future achievements, as they may find it impossible to imagine or plan.

So what can you do?

  • Stay in touch : Keep in touch with other people who have or are experiencing similar challenges that can relate to what you’re going through.
  • Recognise strengths : Current serving and ex-ADF members are disciplined, reliable and motivated. Useful skills have been developed during service that can benefit many different areas of life, including employment, parenting, being a great partner and many more.
  • Set a routine : Civilian life can seem unstructured, so setting a routine can help restore a sense of balance and order. A good routine might involve fitness, family life or other social activities. You can try to find other veterans interested in the same things, who will be more open to routine-driven activities.
  • Reach out : Talking up is not a sign of weakness. There are many services available to get help and support. They can help people get back on track and transition to civilian life.

First-hand experiences

In this fantastic video series, filmed for Operation Compass, ex-ADF members share some of the mental health challenges they faced when they returned to civilian life and offered some great advice on the importance of speaking up:

Lachlan Manning

“I found the more I opened up and talked about it, the better it’s been for me… I didn’t think I’d ever genuinely be happy again and have mates like I had in the Army.”

Alexandra Redlich

“I started asking for help and people started helping me. That blew my mind. I felt like I actually mattered. When you start feeling low, get help. It is so much easier to get help when you’ve only fallen down one step, than when you’ve fallen down the whole flight.”

Col Hamley

“One of the traps I think most soldiers fell into was heavy drinking… I think most people bottled up their problems, and that was one of the silly things that we should never have done. If you had a problem, you should be able to talk about it openly to other people. It’s the only way you’re ever going to get any sort of reprieve from your problems,” he says.

 

If you need someone to talk to, you can call our MensLine Australia counsellors on 1300 78 99 78, or register for online chat.

[1] Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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