A silent war – mental health in the NZDF

Written By: - Date published: 7:36 pm, April 24th, 2013 - 10 comments
Categories: military - Tags: , ,

lprent: On the eve of ANZAC day, I thought that it was appropriate to publish this guest post by a soldier on their reasons for departing the Defense Force. There are few organisations these days who spend as much resource and effort on training as the Defense Force does. There are even fewer who exert as much limiting social control over their employees. Just think about spending much of a year in Waiouru for instance. 

It is ridiculous to expend the vast resources and time required to train modern non-commissioned soldiers and then to skimp on one of their primary medical needs – mental health. And the pay for military personnel isn’t exactly generous enough for them to fund their own treatment even if it was available near some of the bases. 

You don’t always expect to find people with mental health problems in a place like the Defence Force. Yet with 1 in 5 adults in New Zealand experiencing some form of mental illness at some point in their life, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Defence Force is really a cross-section of society, so of course mental illness will be present. What is surprising is the way mental health is dealt with – or not, as the case may be.

If you have an acknowledged mental illness in the Defence Force, then it’s probable that you’re medically downgraded and will have certain restrictions placed upon you. This will basically mean that you can’t leave metropolitan areas of New Zealand and depending on what’s going on, mean you can’t use or have access to weapons or explosives. You may get stood down from work for a period of time. You may receive counselling or other therapies. Or maybe you’ll just be downgraded and reviewed later on – perhaps in 6 or 12 months. Depending on the point you are at in your career, being medically downgraded may be a result that you don’t want.

A media release quotes the Head of Health for the NZDF as saying that the NZDF has “good systems” and that they are “proactively managing the health of deployed personnel”. Deployed personnel maybe, but I beg to differ for those of us ‘just doing our jobs’ at home. Further, the Army News (issue 410) quotes that “The NZDF prides itself on providing a variety of health support networks to support everyone’s needs.” So why was I, like many others, so let down by this service that was supposed to help me?

I did about 6 years with the Defence Force before deciding to leave. I was diagnosed with a mild depression and anxiety disorder almost a year after I joined up, and for my entire career I had to fight for help. I have been invariably told to “snap out of it and harden up”, or that there is nothing wrong with me. Those in charge of me, the people who were supposed to be there to help and support me, either weren’t interested or couldn’t be bothered dealing with it. The people I should have been able to trust with my medical care did little short of trying to ruin my career and the people I was supposed to be receiving help from didn’t exactly provide the help I needed.

It took me 18 months after my original diagnosis to be reinstated with a proper medical grading so I could travel overseas. I had been on anti-depressants and I had received a pitiful 5 sessions of counselling. According to the Defence Force, I was “fixed”. When things started going sour again, their response was another 3 sessions of counselling. In the years that followed, that was the standard solution – 3 sessions of counselling.

My bosses had no interest in trying to help me break the cycle I was in, instead making things worse with their insensitivity and lack of support. One of my bosses even told me that he thought I was using my depression as an excuse to avoid working and that there was nothing wrong me – I just had to learn how to snap out of my bad moods and carry on with my life. Even when a friend was almost killed in an accident, which I struggled to deal with, I got told to forget all about it and that the support services were not available for people like me who made a fuss over nothing. And yes, my bosses knew I had depression!

In the Defence Force, if you want to receive counselling either from a counsellor or a psychologist/psychiatrist outside of the forces, then the local medical unit must authorise it and you are only entitled to 3 sessions before you have to be reviewed. Generally you can’t choose who you see – they will recommend you to someone on the approved list. If you don’t really get along with the person, then you may be recommended to see someone else or told to just deal with it. At these reviews they will deem whether you can receive another 3 sessions or if you are ok to carry to on as normal.

Budget is everything – I have been denied further sessions because my justification for more simply wasn’t good enough and they were financially tight. Once the answer is no, it’s very hard to change it.

I eventually got to the point that it was easier to fake sick days and pretend everything was ok than actually admit there was a problem and try to navigate the convoluted systems to get help. While I realise that it was my individual bosses that mostly prevented me getting to where I should have been the problem is far wider than people realise.

It would seem as well that if you are an officer, getting help isn’t as much of a problem. I once heard an officer talk about mental health and his story. He got paid sick leave for about a month and put in a ‘less stressful’ job for about 3 months on his return before being reinstated to his job – there was no stay in seniority, no loss of pay and full support from everyone around him. It was in such stark contrast with how I got treated that I felt physically sick hearing it. Yet so many people I know choose to bottle up their problems because it’s not worth the inherent issues you face admitting there is something wrong, particularly if you are in the non-commissioned ranks.

So no, I do not believe that the Defence Force has adequate systems in place for dealing with mental illness. Look at Cpl Doug Hughes. While I do not know the full story, it makes me wonder what he was battling through that the system let him down on. Or what about the young Linton soldier who committed suicide recently? How much support did he get, or was he trying to seek help and being denied? I also know of a young Air Force guy who committed suicide a few years ago – was he receiving the support he should have been entitled to? There have been 5 recorded suicides in the past 6 years – how many more statistics will it take for the Defence Force to change their attitudes towards mental illness?

Lt. Gen. Rhys Jones, the Chief of Defence Force, is quoted as saying that “if you are having issues you probably couldn’t be in a better place” in a letter he sent to personnel about mental health. I’m sorry, Lt. Gen. Jones, but you obviously have never had the… ah… privilege of trying to deal with the mental health system that is currently utilised in the Defence Force. I have never felt more let-down and side-lined in my life as I have been trying to deal with my depression through the NZDF.

There are a lot of problems within the Defence Force, ranging from the ever-widening gulf between officers and non-commissioned ranks, the issues with Equal Employment Opportunities and sexism, civilianisation, budgetary constraints as well as mental illness and how it’s dealt with. Our personnel in the Armed Forces deserve better than what they get, particular those who can be seen as vulnerable – the young ordinary ranks, those young people just starting in their careers who may or may not have dependent families.

They are the ones who were worst-hit by the false pay-rises last year, the increased rents, civilianisation and the lack of proper support services for our Armed Forces. And being ordinary ranks, they don’t have the authority or position to make things suit them, to be part of the ‘old boys’ club’ that is still so strongly prevalent in the NZDF.

So when I stand in the crowd on ANZAC Day, wearing my medal with a certain amount of shame and pride, I will be remembering not just those who have been before and those friends I have lost to the negligence of the Defence Force, but those I left behind who struggle on and who stand proud in service to our country – regardless of whether or not our country chooses to be proud of them.

lprent: Despite what looks to be some quite inclement weather, I’ll extract myself into the cold as well. My limited peacetime service as a medic after Vietnam made me realise why the ex-soldiers in my family who’d been on active service were always so silent about their experiences.  They have served everywhere from the hell of  the WW2 desert to more recently in Bosnia.

But I spare a thought for people still in the NZDF, including some of the extended family.

10 comments on “A silent war – mental health in the NZDF”

  1. karol 1

    Thanks for telling your story, guest poster. it’s moving and indicates something is very wrong with the way the way the NZDF care for the mental health of its own.

    When I was young, I used to like going up to the Auckland museum with my Dad for the dawn parade. he also never talked about his WW2 experiences, but, as far as I recall, always marched in the dawn parade with his medals.

    These days I tend to watch some of the coverage on Maori TV.

    Tonight there is a documentary that looks like it will be worth watching, according to Russell Brown’s heads up.

    there’s another documentary. Scheduled separately from the Anzac Day selection, Kay Ellmers and Annie Goldson’s He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan looks at our 10-year war in a distant land, largely through the eyes of New Zealand journalist Jon Stephenson.

    Commissioned by Maori Television, the film explores the reasons for New Zealand’s participation in Afghanistan and the impact of our military presence there — on both the local people and on the young men and women we sent.

    This is a topic the news media have trod carefully around, and I think its commissioning speaks volumes for Maori Television’s commitment to serious public interest programming. It screens tonight at 8.30pm.

    • lprent 1.1

      Bloody good thing that Maori TV was playing what was happening up at the cenopath on a large screen this morning at the Auckland Domain. Otherwise waking Lyn up would have been a waste of time.

      Keeps getting bigger the further we are away from the larger wars.

      Maybe it is worth getting the aerial back up and operating again. It’d be interesting seeing that documentary.

      • karol 1.1.1

        Actually I have the documentary recorded on My Freeview. I’ll see if I am able to copy it to disc – never tried before.

        It was excellent. It was as much about what journalism can do as about our role in Afghanistan – responses from Afghanis with their (not very flattering) view of NZ’s role in their country.

        Comments from Stephenson and Nicky Hager throughout the doco.

  2. AmaKiwi 2

    Thank you for telling your story. I hope it gets wider coverage, but I won’t hold my breath.

    Depression is often described as anger turned inwards.

    Like my anger about decision makers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Least of all, the value of people.

    I hope your head and heart can find a better place.


  3. Copperhead 3

    Thanks for telling us your story. Just remember that almost all of the country support you and your buddies. Even if your over-inflated popinjays with too much brass on their shoulders (and in their noggin) don’t, we gladly will. Kia Kaha Kia Toa tuakana.

  4. r0b 4

    It is only if people speak out, as you have, that there is any hope for improvement. Bravo – I hope that your story inspires others to speak.

  5. burt 5

    Whoever wrote this; Thank you for being brave enough to share. It’s inspiring when people open themselves up like this by being honest and candid exposing deeply personal things in this way.

    Sincerely, thanks for sharing.

  6. Anne 6

    Shame on them Guest Poster. Shame…shame …shame. It takes courage to ‘blow the whistle’ which is what you have done here. Take heart that in the future you will feel proud you had the guts to do so, and the brass will be seen as not standing by their soldiers, sailors and airmen when they were in need of support.

  7. Antonina 8

    Thank you for sharing this. I hate to think what assitance those leaving after combat service – probably suffering PTSD are given even in these supposedly more enlightened days.You can imagine the assistance soldiers leaving after one or two tours in Vietnam. They were given a jocular ‘fact sheet’ for their families advising them not to worry if their ex soldier preferred to sleep on the floor or reacted badly to loud noises. I hope you can move on with life and get decent help soon.

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