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Australia's Women In Defence Have Alarmingly High Suicide Rates

A new report has revealed ex-servicewomen take their own lives at more than double the rate of the broader female population.

As the government forges ahead to meet its female targets for women in defence jobs, three reports were released on Friday by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) examining the wellbeing of serving and former Australian Defence personnel.

This includes analysis of men and women in the Army, Navy and Defence Force, and for the first time, suicide rates for ex-serving women have been included.

Between 2001 and 2017, there were 21 suicide deaths among ex-serving females. That rate of suicide is 2.15 times higher than the general female population.

Now in its third year, the report is the largest ever look at how being in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) can affect the lives of military personnel, and how leaving has its own problems.

New research has shone a light on suicide among defence force personnel. Image: AAP.

"While the number of women in the ADF is increasing, it has historically been low. The size of the contemporary female ex-serving cohort is increasing each year, with the number reaching 16,366 in 2017," AIHW spokesperson Michael Frost said.

"For this reason, suicide information for ex-serving females is reported for the first time in this report."

The report found former ADF personnel have much higher rates of mental issues like anxiety or panic attacks, and are more likely to take medication for mental illness.

These findings aren't encouraging, given the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is attempting to bring more women into the industry.

In 2018 Australia took its final step towards enabling women to participate in all aspects of ADF combat operation.

Since removing the final restrictions, the ADF has also introduced targets for women. Women currently represent 17.9 percent across the Defence Force. By 2023, Defence is aiming for 25 percent in the Navy, 15 percent in the Army and 25 percent in the Air Force.

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Clinical psychologist Katrina Streatfeild was engaged by Australian Rotary health to research the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on defence personnel.

The Victoria-based practitioner said understanding the mental health profile of defence force members and veterans is imperative for proper policy and support planning.

"The unique mental health impact of defence role evolution for women is yet to be well understood," Streatfeild said.

"The nature of defence force work can expose members to unique stressors related to training requirements, family separation, relocation and trauma... we require more research as the female cohort of defence members change both in nature of job roles and number of serving members."

While the suicide rate for ex-serving women was much higher than the rate for the general female population, it is still lower than the rate for ex-serving men.

Experts say more research is needed on the mental health effects experienced by women serving in defence. Image: Getty

Between 2001 and 2017, there were a total 419 suicide deaths among serving, reserve and contemporary ex-serving ADF personnel. The vast majority of these were men.

"This monitoring will inform improvements in suicide prevention and other services for serving and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families," AIHW spokesperson Michael Frost said.

Veteran Scott Harris, who spent more than two decades serving in the Australian army, said discussions and research on suicide among former defence members should have been started years ago.

Now a welfare officer with the Returned Services League, and an advocate for defence veterans, Harris said while the mental health of men and women hasn't always been considered equally.

"At the end of the day, you are a veteran defence member. Regardless of your sex, you should be looked at," he said.

Veterans have called for more mental support should be given to ex-servicemen and women. Image: AAP

Harris, who himself spent some time in a psychiatric hospital after having a nervous breakdown, said it's the government's responsibility to take care of its veterans -- both physically and psychologically.

"They send them to war in the name of the government, in the name of the people," Harris said.

"They send us over there in a situation that is not good... they need to fix it."

If we come back broken, they need to fix us.

Harris said the more people talk about suicide, the more people can help one another.

"Veterans find it very difficult to relate to someone who has not been down that path... they're not going to be able to relate the same as to the general public," Harris said.

"I did 23 years in the military and two tours overseas and there are things that I have never told my wife and I have ever told my children, but I can talk to other veterans about more easily."

For advice and support: Open Arms - Veterans and Families Counselling: 1800 011 046, or www.openarms.gov.au ADF All-hours Support Line: 1800 628 036 Operation Life Online: http://at-ease.dva.gov.au/suicideprevention Lifeline: 13 11 14, or www.lifeline.org.au Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467, or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au and vgerova@networkten.com.au