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Military should get annual check up

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Australian Defence Force personnel would undergo annual mental health checks under plans backed by the AMA to tackle rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts in the military.

A parliamentary committee inquiring into the mental health of soldiers, sailors and air force personnel found that although in the short term they were no more prone to mental health problems than the broader community, the nature of their work meant the types of problems they experience are not the same.

The 2010 ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study found that 22 per cent of Defence personnel experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, roughly similar to that found in a sample of general members of the community, while almost 7 per cent who suffered multiple problems.

But although, in the short term, the prevalence of problems was approximately the same, over their lifetime, ADF personnel were found to be more at risk of mental health problems.

Military personnel were found to be less prone to alcohol abuse, but they were more likely to suffer depression, and to think about and plan suicide. The most common mental health problem, however, was anxiety, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler said this reflected the particular characteristics of their work, including experiences during deployment overseas and long absences from family and support networks.

Professor Owler said a recommendation from the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee for annual mental health screening was a welcome proposal.

“Annual screening would help ensure that mental health problems are identified at a much earlier stage, would support early intervention, and lead to much better mental health outcomes for affected personnel,” the AMA President said.

He also endorsed the Committee’s call for a unique identifier number for veterans linked to their service and medical records.

In 2013, the Federal Government gave in-principle support to a similar idea put forward by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, but Professor Owler said there appeared to have been little progress made on it since.

“A unique or universal identifier could help improve health outcomes for these patients,” Professor Owler said.

The AMA President said it would support the transition of personnel out of Defence Force-funded health services into those provided by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or the mainstream health system, and would enable tracking of the health of former ADF personnel over time, which was critical to research.

He said there was strong support for the idea among veterans’ groups, and called on the Government and bureaucracy to fast-track the initiative.

Adrian Rollins