posted on July 28, 2016 12:32
The chilling public hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse explored child sexual abuse within the Australia Defence Force from the 1960s to the present. The acts reported were violent and brutal, and a culture of silencing, shaming and inaction was prevalent. The repercussions, physically and psychologically were compounded by the dismissive, negating and often punitive responses by the fellow service personnel, the system and those in authority who did not intervene. Victims’ lives have been decimated as a result.
It is those effects on victims that dominate our consciousness and highlight broader issues around the need for greater recognition and appropriate responses to trauma survivors within the armed services.
The prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (which incorporates the combination of numbing, re-experiencing, hyper-arousal) in returned servicemen and women is well recognised. In fact, the term was coined to describe the symptoms and challenges of combat troops returning from the war in Vietnam. Recognition and acknowledgement of those who battle with their mental health and are at risk of suicide as a result of traumas, such as childhood sexual abuse and violence, sexual abuse and harassment as adults and/or as a result of multiple deployments is much needed.
A core characteristic of trauma is that the experience of one trauma compounds on another, and the effects of trauma are cumulative. However, there is a tendency to classify all traumas occurring amongst defence force personnel as the result of a ‘single incident’ i.e. PTSD. The reality is that many people within the defence force, including those who are providing testimony have experienced multiple compounded traumas. A diagnosis of PTSD does not adequately describe the challenges many experience and hence does not garner the appropriate and ongoing treatment and support they need to rebuild their lives.
Trauma is defined as any event or events that occur in response to a real or perceived threat. Such trauma invokes feelings of fear, helplessness and horror and it threatens to overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms. When trauma is not resolved it leaves those who have experienced it more susceptible to future and additional stresses. Through the Royal Commission we have witnessed the ways in which trauma shatters lives – those who are courageously speaking out at the public hearing grapple with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, relationship difficulties and suicidal behaviours of on a daily basis.
When trauma is compounded, as with child sexual abuse, it’s known as complex trauma. Its impacts are often more pervasive and extreme than those experienced with PTSD alone. Traumatic stress is a precursor to a life-altering collective of mental and physical health challenges, as well as the challenges of daily living. Accordingly, it is critical for the ADF to look beyond the diagnosis of PTSD and identify the whole picture.
There are many stresses inherent in military service, including those placed on families as a result of postings and transitions, let alone those experienced during active service. Active service brings additional and sometimes catastrophic threats and stressors to the psyche, including the loss of comrades and others, threats of injury, actual physical or psychological injury and of death itself.
Military service members who have experienced multiple deployments, ongoing armed conflict and exposure to combat situations often develop PTSD as well as other serious mental health, physical health and substance abuse problems. So do those who were raped, violated and demeaned in addition to the traumas of armed service itself.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is exploring a range of institutional systems, each with their own culture, philosophy and hierarchical model. The ADF, of necessity, has a strict hierarchy and chain of command in which power and control are embedded. The Commission is currently considering those elements in relation to the abuse of power and betrayal of trust which underpin institutional child sexual abuse within the ADF. It will make its recommendations accordingly.
The Royal Commission has already made recommendations in relation to Redress, a critical element of which relates to the psychological and counseling care needs of survivors. The psychological and counseling care needs of Veterans in general, but specifically for Veterans who have been sexually abused or have experienced complex trauma which exceed those of a PTSD diagnosis, are critical and the time to act is opportune.
We must acknowledge, recognise and appropriately address the needs of the men and women who serve our country. Their health and well-being depends on it. Recovery is possible with the right ongoing support. We owe it to our Veterans to provide that support.