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Summary of round table with the Department of Defence

  • Round Table summary
Publication date

This document provides a summary of the key points discussed at the round table held by Commissioner Boss with representatives of the Department of Defence and Australian Defence Force on 17 February 2021.

The views provided by stakeholders are critical to inform the current and future work of the National Commissioner. However, the summary of stakeholder discussion outlined below should not be considered to represent the views or findings of the National Commissioner.

You can read the summary below or download a copy above.

Mental Health and Suicide Awareness and Support in the ADF

Participants discussed Defence's approach to mental health and suicide awareness and support in the ADF, including the important role of families and peers. Participants also discussed the points of differentiation between Defence specific and broader community issues. Key matters raised included:

  • Defence officials stated that stigma is a generic term and it is important to recognise that how mental health concerns and suicidality manifest is a personal issue that is both individual and situational. There is a need for wraparound efforts to address stigma at a system or organisational level, as well as the provision of support at an individual level.
  • Defence officials stated that factors influencing ADF service members in discussing mental health concerns include concerns about what they will lose in the immediate future, worry about their own welfare, their mates, their families, their capacity to serve, and a feeling of loss of control over career destiny, a sense of fear and failure.
  • Defence officials stated there are knowledge gaps in what is understood about stigma. A key thing that needs to be understood is mental health stigma among those who are new to the ADF, noting that the highest risk category are those who have served the shortest time.
  • Defence officials stated that stigma is not an issue to be ‘solved' as a one-off; it is something that Defence needs to continue to deal with and address.
  • Defence officials stated that stigma and other issues related to mental health and suicidality are not unique to the ADF. The ADF receives an intake from the broader Australian community with views reflective of that community. It is important to consider whether and where the ADF is a reflection of the wider community on these issues.
  • Defence officials stated the extent to which views and concerns among the ADF population reflect the broader Australian population does not negate the need to address these issues in the ADF. However, understanding similarities and differences between Defence and the wider community is important in considering how to respond. 
  • Defence officials stated that the ADF operates as a closed loop system. There are excellent support systems available to ADF members, but generally these operate as separate from the broader community. As such, there is a need to have confidence in the ADF system.
  • Defence officials stated there has been an increase in suicide in the general community since the late 1990s, though rates have steadied in the last few years. Since approximately 2005, the ADF rates of death by suicide have been lower than that of the rest of the community.
  • Defence officials stated that relative to the general community, the ADF has a higher rate of people presenting with suicidal ideation and a roughly equal rate of suicide attempts, but a lower rate of deaths by suicide. Defence officials advised this may be attributable of the ADF's awareness training.
  • Defence officials stated that the ADF recognises the importance of early intervention. The act of presenting to mental health supports with suicidal ideation in the ADF is helpful in enabling the provision of support. The risk of progressing to a suicide attempt is lessened if a person presents with suicidal ideation, as opposed to not presenting.
  • Defence officials stated that there is support within the ADF for better data to monitor suicidal ideation.
  • Defence officials stated that there is a need to shift the narrative from focusing on death by suicide and also consider the journey of suicidal behaviour. This shift includes considering protective factors, including how coping skills can be developed during service and utilised when the member leaves the ADF. 
  • Defence officials stated that the discipline of psychology includes organisational and clinical psychologists. Both have an important role in service provision in the ADF.
  • Defence officials stated that the ADF has enhanced the availability of mental health clinicians. It has also embraced a multidisciplinary service delivery model which also includes other professionals, such as social workers.
  • Defence officials stated that there is need to mobilise a range of different techniques and approaches to influence cultural reform around stigma and help seeking. This includes, but is not limited to:
    • mobilising peers and peer networks as a way of encouraging help seeking behaviours.
    • Supporting established events such as RUOK day.
    • Lived experience initiatives, involving survivors who share their stories in a way that allows others to connect with them.
  • Defence officials stated that the trajectory of how mental health is approached in the ADF is analogous to the ADF's approach to work health and safety. Work, health and safety approaches have become embedded and have evolved and matured over time, with increased scale of effort and commitment.
  • Defence officials stated that mobilising peers and peer networks as part of a range of approaches to encouraging help seeking is important. Peers triggering or nudging individuals to seek support can be an important mechanism that promoted help-seeking behaviour.
  • Defence officials stated that, given the importance of the peer network, tailored support provided to the individual needs to consider this peer support network as well as the command chain network.
  • Defence officials stated that prioritising mental health ‘within the DNA of Defence' is important. Cultural reform continues to be emphasised, as does the importance of ADF leadership. There are already important pieces of architecture within the ADF to support and prioritise mental health. For example, psychosocial issues are an integral part of Work Health and Safety (WHS) and are discussed as part of a regular WHS roundtable with senior leadership.
  • Defence officials stated that there have been some opportunities to have interactions between ADF leadership and those with lived experience.
  • Defence officials stated that education about how to respond to those with mental health issues continues to be important.
  • Defence officials stated that the Pathways to Change cultural reform priorities have a focus on health, wellness and safety, as well as leadership accountability (in addition to other cultural reform priorities).
  • Defence officials stated that evaluation can be challenging for some psychosocial initiatives.
  • Defence officials stated that partners are often the people who will initially raise an issue, which allows the ADF to explain and provide referrals to available ADF supports (including, but not limited to Joint Health Command doctors and psychological support).
  • Defence officials stated that the role of the partner in disclosing an issue and/or supporting an ADF member in their mental health disclosure is important and there has been an increase of partner initiated requests for assistance. 
  • Defence officials stated partner engagement is a way of reinforcing that disclosure of a mental health issue is not the end of an ADF member's career. The majority of members who disclose a mental health issue are supported to return to an operational environment or remain in an operational environment. 
  • Defence officials stated that there are also supports available for the partner of an ADF member. This includes, for example, funding and support for partners to leverage the ADF's employer provider networks and update their resumes and to upskill.
  • Defence officials stated that the need for support structures is being communicated at all levels of leadership, with commanding officers encouraging ADF members to share and raise concerns with friends and family.
  • Defence officials stated that the platoon commanders and service equivalents continue to be important in the support structure for an ADF member.
  • Defence officials stated that it is incumbent on the commander to know their members as they are ‘at the heart' of looking after their people. Platoon Commander notebooks and service equivalents remain in use.
  • Defence officials stated that Defence is exploring an IT project to make information more relevant, automated and up-to-date to support commanding officers to understand and support their ADF personnel and share relevant information. The system includes information such as leave balances to tags about relationship breakdowns.

Defence officials stated that human resources support is an important support network for those in the chain of command who may need support to respond to mental health issues. These human resources officers have a deeper knowledge of available support systems and provide support to divisional staff. This doesn't absolve commanding officers of responsibility, but offers another layer of support.

  • Defence officials stated that there is a range of supports available to Defence families. The Defence Community Organisation (DCO) has 40 defence social workers to assist families – these staff members are trained in the military culture.
  • Defence officials stated that relationship difficulties or breakdowns are multifaceted and who DCO engages with is dependent on the particular pressure points for each family. DCO are able to reach into other support mechanisms. For example, Open Arms can provide longer term relationship counselling. Referrals can also be made to support services such as Relationships Australia and some relevant ESOs.
  • Defence officials stated that Defence also provides 24/7 support and access to a social worker or clinical psychologists 365 days a year through the Defence Family Helpline.
  • Defence officials stated that support can be provided to assist families understand the nature of service. Sometimes families need to be advised about service requirements and the demands on ADF members. Support can also be provided to, where possible, keep the family together on postings.
  • Defence officials stated that Defence's census data, when considered in comparison with other data, can be used to examine how similar or different ADF members' experiences are compared to civilians.

Transition out of the Australian Defence Force

Participants discussed the challenges of managing transition and the services, supports and overall approach Defence takes to their transitioning members. Key matters raised included:

Defence officials stated that there is a need to prepare ADF members for transition from early in their careers. Transition is talked about from the first day. Although an ADF member will be focused on their career, they can do so knowing that support will be available whenever they may decide to leave.

  • Defence officials stated that the approach to transition should be continuously improving rather than static. It should be influenced by veterans, professionals and those currently in service.
  • Defence officials stated that they work with researchers to obtain high quality evidence. For example, transitioning members are advised of and are able to participate voluntarily in the M-CARM trial.
  • Defence officials stated that there will be a need to maintain focus, commitment and energy, and recognise that changes will not be achieved quickly.
  • Defence officials stated that research will continue to be important, particularly to better understand the service and transition experience of more junior, less experienced ADF members.
  • Defence officials stated that Defence continues to look at their framework of risk and protective factors and compare the work they are doing with the work happening nationally to ensure alignment and priority emphasis is in the right place (for example, work by the Productivity Commission and work by the National Mental Health Commission). There are some topics for further consideration, such as increasing Defence's understanding through a gender lens, looking at new parenthood as a risk factor, and looking at the experience and support needs of the Indigenous ADF cohort.
  • Defence officials stated that an important aspect of transition is that supports are universally available to all ADF members. 
  • Defence officials stated that previously, Defence had policies that precluded individuals from accessing transitional supports until they had served for a certain number of years. Services are now targeted towards the most vulnerable, at risk cohorts. This includes those who leave the ADF at an early stage; particularly those aged less than 30 with less than four years of service. This cohort also sees more administrative transitions.
  • Defence officials stated that ADF member and family agency over dependency was important.
  • Defence officials stated that Defence's transition processes are, and should continue to be, designed to promote this agency. For example, if a member does not have a Medicare card when transitioning, the support during the transition process should be to support them to understand the applicable processes and apply for the Medicare card themselves, rather than organising for it to be provided for them.
  • Defence officials stated that the focus on agency rather than dependency occurred from 2017 and is an example of how the approach taken by Defence is being modernised. It is complementary to the client approach taken by the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA). Each of these approaches also places the person at the centre of the transition process, not the organisation.
  • Defence officials stated that the UN Human Security Framework model has guided Defence's planning approach to service delivery in recent years. The approach is person-centred, context specific and prevention oriented and considers the broad and inter-linked social determinants influencing a transitioning member (eg. Housing, medical care, rehabilitation, social connectedness). Transition coaches frame their work using this approach.
  • Defence officials stated that the ADF has an important role to play in supporting transition, but effectively addressing issues involves a whole of system approach that crosses departments and support structures. This includes DVA, CSC, ESOs and broader community supports.
  • Defence officials stated that the Joint Transition Authority takes a systems view of transition, recognising the need for multiple supports from multiple avenues across the whole system. It also recognises that multiple supports can become confusing and therefore need to be packaged in a way that is easily accessible and understandable for the transitioning member.
  • Defence officials stated that an effective response to transition is to use a multiagency model and have a whole of life conception – incorporating before service, during service, in transition and the early years after through to later life. It should not be compartmentalised.
  • Defence officials stated that there are several programs focused on preparation to transition including Transition for Employment (T4E) and Personalised Career Employment Program (PCEP).
  • Defence officials stated that prior to 2017, the Defence transition process was mainly administrative and focused on the organisation's needs. The ADF member and their personal readiness or transition needs were not the focus.
  • Defence officials stated that since 2017, transition coaches have been a feature of transition. They are guided by a systems framework and have a person centred approach. These staff are qualified with a Certificate 4 in career planning and provide assistance to the transitioning member and their family.
  • Defence officials stated that the ADF member transitioning, and their family, have to be at the centre when support is provided. There should be recognition that those who are transitioning out have their own varying personal needs.
  • Defence officials stated that training and support is not effective when delivered in static blocks, but needs to go at the pace that the member needs to be ready to leave. Transition coaches work with veteran support officers (who are Defence's connection with DVA) and rehabilitation teams in Joint Health Command. Synchronisation of this process is being enhanced through the implementation of the Joint Transition Authority.
  • Defence officials stated that an effective transition approach includes an individualised and tailored suite of offerings rather than a standard template based on their length of service. Defence offers transitional supports based on the ADF members personal and family needs. For example, where there are medical needs then there are more supports and a case manager is made available. Where a member voluntarily transitions they may not need this level of support.
  • Defence officials stated that for the majority of ADF members who need support, this need doesn't typically occur immediately during the transition-out process, but the need manifests later. 
  • Defence officials stated that reaching back into Defence after transition was previously discouraged, but there are now avenues available to ‘reach back' into Defence for support. In an initiative that is only a few years old, ADF members can connect with their transition coach for two years after their transition. This provides ADF members with a level of security; knowing that support is available if they need it. Just over 1,000 people have reached back in since the initiative was implemented.
  • Defence officials stated that there is also support available for ADF members to ‘step out' of the ADF, and then step back in once they are ready.
  • Defence officials stated that social connections outside of the military are an important element of successful transition and need to be supported and encouraged. This can be as simple as encouraging the joining of a civilian cycling club rather than a military one. 
  • Another initiative Defence officials referenced is efforts to start to understand the locations of retired military chaplains, and how this pastoral care network can be used to support individuals with social connectivity.
  • Defence officials stated that there are a large number of ESOs, whose members have differing experiences of transition.
  • Defence officials stated that ESOs perspectives can be focused on the point in time experience of particular veterans. These views can be disconnected from current information or processes. For this reason, the nature and timing of an ESO member's transition provides important context for their views.  
  • Defence officials stated that there is a need for training, information provision and discussion that is localised to the region. Before COVID, there were ESO seminars held around the country; this has now moved to a virtual platform and in the future will likely be a combination of the two.
  • Defence officials stated that there can sometimes be a blockage in the information provided from Defence to ESOs being communicated to veterans.
  • Defence officials stated that transition approaches should be evidence based rather than opinion based.
  • Defence officials stated that ESOs, as they are currently established, have variable capacity and capability.
  • Defence officials stated a vision of a national capability that has the veteran community working in harmony rather than through a disaggregated set of actions and atomised interests.
  • The example of how veterans are supported after they leave the US Marine Corps was discussed. This involves aspects including personal engagement, support with housing, employment, community engagement, social interaction and regular check-ins.
  • Defence officials stated that the most beneficial advice ESOs can provide is to encourage ADF members to get into a transition program and access a transition coach. The transition process is a mandatory process with checkpoints that are intended to guide the ADF member's transition. 

Defence officials stated the importance of language, and that terminology such as ‘de-programming' or ‘de-culturisation' may carry negative connotations. Instead, the focus should rather be on self-agency and reorienting a person for the civilian community.

  • Defence officials stated that the Privacy Act can impede sharing of information between Defence and the family of an ADF member. Some participants stated that the Privacy Act was not always intended to have the implications it does, but provisions have to be balanced with a person's right to their privacy. Even when there are proven better outcomes working with families, an individual's right to privacy has to be respected. 
  • Defence officials stated that Defence applies privacy law as it stands. This can sometimes lead to frustration when it restricts communications that may be beneficial to the ADF member. However, in circumstances that warrant it, Defence does test and seek legal advice to ensure they are sharing as much as they are legally able to. This is a barrier that exists in the civilian community as well, such as with general practice, and is not unique to Defence. 
  • Defence officials stated that there may be a perception that service providers refer to the Privacy Act as a reason not to seek further consent from an ADF member to share information with a family member. This is not what occurs in practice. In actuality, consent from the ADF member to share information with their family is actively pursued and there is very active engagement with the individual with the purpose of talking more fulsomely with the families. There is also training of support personnel around what information can be shared.
  • Defence officials stated that service members who initially resist family member engagement often need to have further discussion to understand how this occurs so they feel adequately supported. When this support is provided, the majority of ADF members will subsequently give consent to bring the family into the discussion.
  • Defence officials stated that information sharing is facilitated through individual welfare boards and support teams that bring a multidisciplinary view and aim to provide wrap around support to ADF members. Often these boards will include a Defence Community Organisation representative such as a transition coach or social worker, relevant medical practitioners, chaplains and family members. Participants stated that this is driven based on a desire to enhance the wellbeing of the individual; it's not about pushing for involuntary transition. However, sometimes the narrative about these initiatives is dominated by those who separated from the ADF at a time when a previous system was used.
  • Defence officials stated that the Surgeon General will release a health policy that provides advice about involving a family member in discussions. 
  • Defence officials stated that the Family Engagement trial undertaken by Joint Health Command has received positive feedback.
  • Defence officials stated that PMKeys is a corporate record system and Defence is in the process of transitioning to a new system (ERP). Some of Defence's systems are old technology that have significant technological constraints. For example, PMKeys is 1990s technology. 
  • Defence officials stated that access to Defence's IT systems by DVA is supported as a way to facilitate multiagency collaboration and information sharing.
  • Defence officials stated that there are a number of projects in play that recognise the fragility of existing IT systems and seek to facilitate better system to system exchange. The Electronic Client Exchange project is one such project.
  • Defence officials stated that there is recognition that there are a number of systems that build a person's profile that are not currently connected and ought to be. For example, disciplinary records are not held with other material and currently not all medical information may be available in a single record.
  • There is some difference of perspectives on what levels of accesses DVA has to Defence systems and the challenges to that access (e.g. Sentinel and PMKeys). This will clarified by way of a joint letter from the DVA and Department of Defence.

Manning and Establishment

Participants discussed the balance between strategic capability and personnel management within the ADF, the flexibility of the workforce system and the recruitment process. Key matters raised included:

  • Defence officials stated that Defence is aware of the sentiment that there are not sufficient shore postings for Navy personnel. Participants noted that support for the workforce needs to be appropriately balanced with strategic circumstances and requirements. 
  • Defence officials stated that the recapitalisation of the ADF will result in increased numbers and more sophisticated upgrades.
  • Defence officials stated that there are two primary strategic policy objectives that require activity:
    • Strategic capability, including high end warfighting capability
    • Regional presence and relationship building. For example, 600 ADF personnel were deployed to Fiji just before Christmas day for the cyclone response.
  • Defence officials stated that Defence is modernising its thinking and processes to balance strategic capability management with personnel management.
  • Defence officials stated that all working environments and roles across Defence, both military and civil, are busy. It is important to recognise that there are different challenges associated with different roles. This includes roles that take people away from home and roles that are shore based, and roles that involve deployment and operational service. However, challenges and stressors are not isolated to those who are deployed or away from their homes. For example, there are also different stressors experienced by ADF members from different generations.
  • Strategies to balance capability development with personnel management discussed by Defence officials included:
    • The introduction of planning cycles, which extend over five year periods and include identifying when people will be deployed and not-deployed. These are an opportunity to plan for and build-in respite for ADF members.
    • Ensuring better depth across platforms/assets, including re-setting workforce structures to introduce pools of people so people are not pulled from shore based to sea based positions unexpectedly.
    • Exploring more sophisticated high end warfighting simulators and training approaches to reduce the need for physical training deployment that displaces people from their home.
    • Looking at ways to manage isolation and maintain connectivity when ADF members are away from home.
    • Attentiveness to the value of work life balance and reorganisation of activities while people are on shore to support this where appropriate is beneficial (e.g. not scheduling training over school holidays).
  • Defence officials stated that where an ADF member is in the lifecycle of their career will impact the extent to which they are deployed. For example, Navy ADF members are more sea based earlier in their career to build-up their experience, then in later career they tend to have more shore based opportunities.
  • Defence officials stated that managing workforce expectation, or preparing people for what their role will entail across the lifespan of their career is important as it is often not just the deployment but rather the unexpected nature of a deployment that can cause disruption.
  • Defence officials stated that the ADF will always be a demanding environment in which to work and in each era Defence has looked for the best models and structures to support effective working. Success is measured in how well Defence is able to sustain its workforce. If the pressure is too great, Defence will not retain service numbers. If the workforce is sustainable, this is an indication that the structures are working. 
  • Defence officials stated that the total workforce system allows Defence to examine what skills are actually required for a position and to assign the work at the right level. 
  • Defence officials stated that Defence now has a more nuanced understanding of the demographics of the workforce, as well as what the market can support. The new system allows Defence to be more flexible and responsive through improved access to people and skills. This is seen, for example, during the bushfires of 2019-20. Defence worked with employers and were able to transition people between Service Categories (SERCAT) to meet operational needs. 
  • Defence officials stated that the approach to transition can be more nuanced using the total workforce model. Previously, Defence used to think in binary terms; either you were ‘in' or you were ‘out'. Now, however, there is opportunity to transfer between service categories. For example, a person might move from a SERCAT7 to a SERCAT5 but be in the same organisation and location. 
  • Defence officials stated that the Army has a flexible establishment trial that is designed to maximise the available workforce for different roles.
  • Defence officials stated that the central question is whether the recruiting process is doing what it needs to in order to select the right people for the right jobs.
  • Defence officials stated that psychologists are an important component of the recruiting system. This is a point of differentiation between Australia's approach and approaches seen in other countries such as Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States (noting cultural and societal differences). In these countries there are recruiting officer interviews but no psychologists. 
  • Defence officials stated that no screening process is 100% effective in screening for mental health concerns. Screening examines factors such as risk factors, protective factors, predispositions and mental health concerns. But it should also not be the assumption that screening is able to identify all people who will die by suicide.
  • Defence officials stated that it is also important to understand that suicide risk factors, including mental health concerns, are often not static and include multiple components – suicide risk can come from a lifetime of experience.
  • Defence officials stated that there are mental health conditions that require exclusion through the screening process (e.g. psychosis). However, there are people recruited to the ADF who have a history of suicide attempts and suicidality and the purpose is not to automatically screen out these people.
  • Defence officials stated that, given the prevalence of mental health conditions in the general population, it would be nonsensical to automatically exclude those with a mental health history from the ADF. The challenge is not to make the door so closed that Defence doesn't recruit from a broad representation of Australian society.
  • Defence officials stated that, in some circumstances, being treated for a mental health condition and receiving treatment or some form of intervention may be a protective factor in that it provides an opportunity to intervene.
  • Defence officials stated that they promote a narrative of thriving, rehabilitation and recovery and that a mental health concern is not the end of an ADF member's career. Simply screening out those with a mental health condition runs counter to this messaging.
  • Defence officials stated that it is important to look at the protective factors in those who have not died by suicide as well as the risk factors for those who have.
  • Defence officials indicated that there is a high number of younger and inexperienced individuals coming into the ADF, but the rate of suicide is lower than that within the general community. It is important to ask whether this may be the result of an effective screening process, or an ineffective screening process.
  • Defence officials stated that rates of suicidality and mental health concerns for individuals who are screened will provide an understanding of the impact the military may have on the individual and what may be related to general community trends.
  • Defence officials discussed that screening provides a baseline measure, and enables analysis to determine the impact of military service, such that:
    • Military culture may be considered neutral if rates are similar to those in the general community after screening
    • Military culture may be considered constructive if after screening, rates go down 
    • Military culture may be considered destructive if after screening, rates go up.
  • Defence officials stated that a significant amount of research is occurring in the field of psychological resilience. For example, there is informative work on resilience drawing on longitudinal research over five years. The majority of service members go through a process of ups and downs and will level out. Others will have different trajectories. The question Defence is asking is what they need to inject into training to support people and strengthen resilience. 
  • Defence officials stated that people will go through episodes where they are challenged to cope. Defence does well in giving people an ability to cope with the challenges and this is something that can be built on as a protective factor.
  • Defence officials stated that resilience training programs such as BattleSMART (Self-management and Resilience Training) which aim to develop self-management and adaptive cognitive coping strategies are of great benefit to service members across their career and over the course of their lives.
  • Defence officials stated that an issue is how to target those who may not be aware they would benefit from support, and how best to put a support system around these people.