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Air Force veterans marching on ANZAC Day

Transitioning to civilian life after service

Ask someone who has served for any length of time and chances are they’ll tell you it was one of the most challenging and rewarding things they’ve ever done.

Military life is so unlike civilian life that it’s hard for people who haven’t been there to imagine what it’s like. It’s a very different world, so much so that it’s something Defence recruiters routinely talk up.

What is talked about less openly, and less often, is the fact that many veterans and ex-Defence personnel continue to fight their own battles, even after transitioning to civilian life.

 

Transitioning to civilian life

One of the most common and widely recognised challenges faced by Defence personnel is the adjustment period to civilian life following discharge.

Being in the Army, Air Force and Navy is in every sense a way of life. In fact, for many personnel it’s the only full-time job they’ve known. It’s been a career, quite possibly since before they were in their 20s. No wonder civilian life can seem so different.

Many ex-personnel find that the period of re-integration can feel daunting. Enlisted life of course has its challenges, but they are usually familiar, whereas civilian life can feel distinctly unfamiliar. It is not abnormal, therefore, for the pace of life outside of the service to feel unnatural, confronting, isolating, even painfully slow.

Normal supports, like familiar friends, people and groups turned to previously, may no longer be in place. This can add to the sense of isolation and estrangement, as can the disruption of routine.

Adding to the sense of unfamiliarity are a host of other challenges, like navigating a new health care system, new housing arrangements, and even managing not only the amount of time with family, but also how that time is spent.

Employment in particular is an area that ex-personnel may struggle with, along with employment that suitably matches their skill level. The unemployment rate among veterans is higher than that of the civilian population, as is the likelihood of being on a lower salary.

There are various contributors to this. Veterans and ex-ADF personnel tend to have skills that are highly desirable in the workplace, like leadership, project management, and the capacity to perform under intense pressure. However, there may be a ‘disconnect’ in how those valuable skills are ‘translated’ into the language used by corporate Australia.

 

Mental health and stigma

Ex-Defence personnel who have transitioned to civilian life have a higher prevalence of mental health conditions than the civilian population. For example, one Department of Defence report found that “an estimated 46% of ADF members who had transitioned from full-time service within the past five years met 12-month diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder” such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

However, there is one mental disorder in particular that’s associated with the veteran population: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is a condition that may result from exposure to trauma and acute stress, such as may occur during deployment.

Some of the more typical symptoms include:

  • ‘Reliving’ traumatic events, such as in the form of vivid dreams or nightmares.
  • Constant or ongoing alertness or fear that can interfere with sleep, concentration, and daily life.
  • Intense dread or fear, even from non-threatening situations (standing in line at a supermarket, being in a crowd, driving through traffic).
  • Mood swings, irritability, anger, or intense feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Detachment or a feeling of emotional numbness.
  • Difficulty forming or maintaining close bonds with people.
  • An intense aversion or desire to avoid situations, things or thoughts associated with the trauma.

 

Anxiety and alcohol abuse were the most common diagnosed life-time disorders among Defence members who had transitioned to civilian life, while one quarter of transitioned ADF members were estimated to have met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime.

 

Getting help

Many Defence personnel are concerned that being open about mental health concerns can adversely affect their career and deployability.

Such a mindset carried into civilian life, coupled with ‘starting a new life’ that may seem unfamiliar and confronting, means that some ex-Defence personnel may be reluctant to discuss and seek help for their mental health concerns. Since a mental health disorder (even a minor one) tends to become more pronounced the longer it remains unaddressed, ex-Defence members are therefore at greater risk of developing more serious mental health conditions.

At its most serious, the result can be tragic. Indeed, current and ex-Defence member are significantly over-represented in the national suicide rate.

However, help is at hand. Many ex-Defence personnel report that talking about their concerns and worries is one of the best things they did. For example, check out these candid videos with veterans discussing life with PTSD. Filmed for Operation Compass, a suicide prevention trial for the Townsville region, these Defence veterans reveal the initial hardship and mental health challenges of living with PTSD, as well as how talking about their concerns helped them.

 

Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.

 

The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.