Veterans and Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel

The National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Agreement identifies veterans specifically as a priority population for suicide prevention.

The information on this page refers to serving and former serving members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Of note, the causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted. It is important to acknowledge that a person who is currently serving or has ceased ADF service may never experience suicidal behaviours or thoughts.

What does the evidence tell us about veterans and Defence Force Personnel suicide?

There is ongoing concern within the ADF and the wider Australian community about the risk of suicide in ex-serving ADF personnel. There are vastly different suicide risks for ADF personnel dependent on whether they are currently serving or ex-serving.

For the period of 1997-2021, the AIHW found an increased rate of deaths by suicide of male Defence veterans, particularly those who had separated involuntarily for medical reasons. When compared to the wider Australian male population, the age-adjusted rate of suicide was:

  • 49% lower for males serving as permanent ADF personnel
  • 45% lower for males serving as reserve ADF personnel
  • 26% higher for ex-serving males
  • 107% higher for ex-serving females.

The suicide rate for ex-serving males who separated voluntarily is similar to the general Australian population (21.5 suicides per 100,000 population). However, the rate for ex-serving males who separate involuntarily for medical reasons is over three times higher than those who separated voluntarily (67.1 per 100,000).

Research has shown that post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, anxiety and depression symptoms, unemployment and total and permanent incapacity status are significantly higher in those veterans with a history of suicide attempt.

The period of transition between serving and immediately before or after leaving service is a crucial time to support longer term outcomes for veteran wellbeing. The Productivity Commission in its report on veteran support stated that leaving permanent military life and adjusting to civilian life is one of the most profound transitions in the life course of ADF personnel.

"For me, joining the military was something that I wanted to do for a really long time and I had big dreams, big career dreams, you know, that I never got to fulfill. There was a lot of unprocessed grief and trauma from my military experience that had sort of compounded.

Accessing Open Arms, particularly in those early stages when my mental health had nose-dived… I think was probably life-saving, to be completely honest, to be able to have that support in working through some of the most challenging times of my life."

Kristy, Navy veteran

Factors that may increase risk of suicide

From the AIHW data and research in ADF veteran suicides, the following factors associated with increased suicide risk for ADF personnel:

  • Being an ex-serving member
  • Involuntary medical discharge
  • Younger age groups
  • Discharge in all ranks other than commissioned officers
  • Shorter lengths of service.

Female ADF veterans: While the number of women in the ADF is increasing, it has historically been low. In 2021, females made up only 20.6% of current serving ADF members. Thus, for privacy and statistical reasons relating to the small number of women in studies, data on rates of suicide for serving and ex-serving women is limited.

Factors that protect against risk of suicide

There are many protective factors that have been identified for those who have served in the ADF that can help to reduce the risk of suicide, including:

  • Staying connected to community – being regularly involved with friends, family and community groups
  • Significant others - having someone to share concerns with, and to care for
  • Physical and mental health – being mentally and physically healthy are important to help people to participate in a meaningful way in life, to work and to engage in significant relationships
  • Personal factors - such as a strong sense of self-worth and hope for the future; a sense of personal control; and resilience
  • Environmental factors – such as safe and stable housing; being responsible for others; and opportunities to participate meaningfully in work, leisure or community groups
  • Financial security – being able to pay for basic necessities like food and housing costs reduces stress on a person and their family
  • Spirituality and belief – a belief system is not necessarily about religion. It is a set of beliefs that sustains you and gives you a reason to go on. Belief is personal and can take on many forms.
  • Getting timely help and information can avoid a crisis and lead to improved, sustainable levels of wellbeing.

What does this mean for policy and practice?

  • Understanding the needs of and providing strategies to support veterans who are transitioning from active service to civilian life. This would include support for families and friends.
  • Identify gaps in data and work to address these to support further understanding of suicide risks and approaches to mitigate these risks.
  • Working within a coordinated care approach with the wider community and health sector to support holistic care. This may include supported referrals for clients to access specialised supports that are out of scope of DVA.
  • Inclusion of Lived Experience Peers in the treatment team is an important component of care that provides a unique opportunity to receive support from someone with a similar lived experience, who has faced similar mental health challenges.
  • Review findings from Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran suicides to enable further insights into drivers of distress.