PTSD Awareness Day highlights the struggles of defence force veterans

Mates 4 Mates is a national charity that helps veterans and their families rebuild their lives after service-related injuries.

This year, with the added stresses of the COVID-19 crisis, Mates 4 Mates is strongly encouraging Australian Defence Force (ADF) members to contact their Family Recovery Centre to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and what support is available. Mates 4 Mates is a national charity that helps veterans and their families rebuild their lives after service-related injuries.

It is estimated that around 8 percent of active ADF members will have experienced PTSD in the past 12 months. This is significantly higher than in the Australian community (5.2 percent). The 2018 Mental Health Prevalence Report found that, for ADF members who have transitioned back into civil society, the number is much higher – around 17 percent.

PTSD Awareness Day, which falls on 27 June every year, is designated to raise awareness of the impacts of this disorder.

PTSD can occur in anyone who been through a traumatic event themselves or witnessed one. This can develop soon after the event or many years later.

Mates 4 Mates psychologist Chris McIntyre says that while each person’s experience is different, many relive the traumatic event through vivid memories or nightmares, often accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.

Retired Army Captain Jason Scanes has lived with PTSD since he returned from serving in Afghanistan. He said that he and his family have had to adjust their daily lives to accommodate his condition.

“It really sucks the motivation out of you,” Scanes said.

“There are certain sounds and smells that trigger your senses and can take you right back to a traumatic event. Having your partner or a mate there to push you in the right direction and build your confidence is vital,” he added.

PTSD often co-occurs with additional conditions like depression, anxiety and alcoholism, which can further complicate matters. However, McIntyre says that PTSD is treatable in many cases with the right support, with some treatments producing improvements for up to 80 percent of patients.

Scanes says that the support of his family and some simple activities helped him cope with his condition, and the transition back to civilian life.

“Before I went to Afghanistan, my wife said: ’I’d like you to keep a journal’. I was reluctant at first, but I did it because I promised I would. But then I found myself wanting to write about my day and my feelings at the time. My wife kept a journal too, and we swapped journals when I came back. I got to read about the hardships she experienced, and vice versa. That gave us a better perspective of what we were each dealing with.

“Keeping a journal really worked for me,” Scanes said.

He said that finding meaningful employment post-service is often the most difficult aspect of returning to civilian life.

“There are a lot of initiatives in the employment space for veterans,” he said.

“But I’m not convinced that these initiatives are widely known or easily accessible. If a veteran who has PTSD and depression gets turned down a few times, without constructive feedback on how they can improve, it then becomes very easy for them to fall into a negative mindset that ‘nobody wants to help, nobody cares, nobody wants me, I’m past my used-by date’. This mindset I would attribute to a lot of suicides in the veteran community. We simply must do more to understand these issues more broadly,” Scanes added.

McIntyre believes that the COVID-19 crisis has worsened the situation of many veterans already struggling with PTSD

“We know that many people with existing mental health issues have struggled through lockdown, as isolation and fear can exacerbate some conditions,” McIntyre said.

“It’s important that where people can’t stay connected physically, they still remain connected virtually to maintain their wellbeing.”

Crisis support can be accessed 24 hours a day at Lifeline: 13 11 14. 

Photo: Mates 4 Mates

Sarah Jacob

Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.