MENTAL health issues arising from traumatic experience during active military service may be “unmasked” by the ageing process, with Vietnam Veterans among those at risk as they enter their 70s and 80s.
With up to 45 per cent of Vietnam Veterans reporting mental health issues, up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the Australian population, the need for support for individuals and families as they enter older age is more important than ever.
Sixty thousand Australian military personnel were sent to Vietnam between 1962 and 1972.
Researchers at the Bolton Clarke Research Institute are working with current and former Australian Defence Force members and their families to improve the quality of health and social care delivered to Vietnam Veterans and the broader ex-services community.
Over the past six months the team has met with Veterans of conflicts from WWII to the present day and their families in focus groups examining mental health and access to services, information and support.
Bolton Clarke Researcher Fellow Marissa Dickins said defence personnel identified significant difficulties in returning to civilian life after deployment or discharge.
“Many Veterans and their families identified the difficulty of transitioning out of the military into the civilian world, experiencing a loss of identity, self-worth and purpose as well as losing their established support networks,” she said.
“The stigma and lack of recognition around mental health in the military community was noted as the biggest reason why both serving and ex-serving members of the Defence Force did not seek help, although it was noted that these perceptions were slowly changing.
“Soldiers returning from Vietnam in particular were subject to a negative reception and treatment due to the public perception of and opposition to the conflict, which has had long-term effects.
“Service-related mental health issues may not become apparent, or not come to a head until later in life, and may be triggered by a life event or stressors, for example marriage breakdown or a financial situation.
“The ageing process may complicate mental health issues and unmask PTSD, with symptoms sometimes appearing or worsening later in life.
“This is particularly evident in people experiencing cognitive decline or dementia.”
Researchers will now work to identify gaps in service provision and opportunities to assist Veterans and their families in accessing support services.