Defence royal commission: Abuse adds to ADF suicide risk, inquiry told

The heartbreaking story behind what leads ADF members to commit suicide was laid bare in an explosive hearing.

Serious abuse suffered by working Australian Defense Force members, and its mismanagement, can add to the risk of suicide, a senior defense employee has told a royal commission.

Former ADF headquarters chief of staff, Air Commodore Lara Gunn, appeared before the royal commission into defense and veteran suicide in Canberra on Monday.

She said her direct experience from engaging with people who were abused showed they had been severely affected by what happened.

“It is my observation that serious abuse suffered by ADF members in service, including the mismanagement of that abuse, can be a contributing risk factor in deaths by suicide, attempted suicide and poor mental health,” Air Commodore Gunn said in a statement to the inquiry

The Defense Abuse Response Taskforce Report had found many victims or survivors of abuse were severely affected by the abuse they suffered, resulting in significant mental health issues.

Air Commodore Gunn said the finding reflected her own experience working as chief of staff for 14 months until January, wherein she was responsible for defence’s response to information received from the defense force Ombudsman about abuse in defence.

“This aligns with my personal observations that have been formed by reading every case report and reparation recommendation document from the Ombudsman during my tenure as chief of staff Australian Defense Force headquarters,” she said in her statement.

She said her views were also informed while serving as the air force director of strategic issues management and as a senior defense representative in a restorative engagement conference.

The royal commission is examining systemic issues and common themes in suicide deaths of ADF members and veterans.

These include suspected suicides and lived experience of suicide risks.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins also appeared before the commission on Monday, revealing under-reporting of workplace sexual abuse was a “significant issue”.

“We consistently hear that Australian workers do not are reluctant to come forward and raise complaints,” she said.

“The reasons they give for that reluctance include that they fear that it’s too minor. They fear that they won’t be believed.

“They fear that they’ll suffer negative consequences including losing their job, they fear it will affect their families and interfere with their relationships with their colleagues.

“There’s very much the sense in Australian workplaces that to fit in you have to get along, take a joke and don’t be a whinger.”

A national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment released in 2020 revealed almost half of those who did make reports experienced negative consequences.

“People feared and in fact did lose jobs and have their careers and their families and their mental health affected,” Ms Jenkins said.

Ms Jenkins said a shift was needed to focus on providing support to people without requiring reporting of incidents.

“Whilst we need to make sure there are good reporting avenues and multiple avenues and justice and consequences individuals are delivered, the reality is still suffering consequences when they do report, so we need to focus as well on much more prevention initiatives to stop this happening, better options and multiple options for reporting,” she said.

People also needed options they could trust to get the help and support needed so their careers and lives were not marred by the experience of sexual harassment, she said.

In his opening address, counsel assisting the Commission, Kevin Connor SC said the fourth public hearing would also probe the impact of defense life on families and the support available during and after service.

“We will deepen our focus on the importance and significance of families, the impacts of service upon them, how they might be better supported, and how this support may be relevant to suicide prevention.”

The inquiry continues at 10am on Tuesday, with the commission’s interim report due in August.

Originally published as Abuse adds to ADF suicide risk, defense royal commission told

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