Ongoing monitoring provides insights into suicide and associated risk factors among serving and ex-serving ADF members

This media release contains information some readers may find distressing as it refers to data about mental health, suicide and self-harm.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released the fifth annual update on suicide among serving and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The report, Serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force members who have served since 1985: suicide monitoring 1997 to 2020, forms part of an ongoing body of work commissioned by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

‘This ongoing monitoring aims to inform improvements in mental health and suicide awareness and prevention for serving and ex-serving ADF members and their families,’ said AIHW spokesperson Paul Pham.

‘The AIHW acknowledges that every life lost to suicide is a tragedy and the impacts on family, friends and communities are profound. We acknowledge and pay our respects to those who have passed away, or been affected, by suicide.’

Previous reports in this series included information about ADF members who died by suicide after 1 January 2001. Today’s report provides an important expansion by including deaths between 1 January 1997 and 31 December 2020 (among ADF members with at least one day of service since 1 January 1985).

Rates of suicide and comparisons with the general Australian population remain similar to previous AIHW reporting. After adjusting for age, permanent males and reserve males were less likely to die by suicide than the general Australian population. However, ex-serving males and females were more likely to die by suicide than the general Australian population.

Compared with the Australian population, suicide rates (after adjusting for age) between 1997 and 2020 were: 49% lower for male permanent ADF members; 46% lower for reserve ADF males; 27% higher for ex-serving ADF males; and 107% (or 2.07 times) higher for ex-serving ADF females. The rate of suicide for ex-serving ADF females was lower than the rate for ex-serving ADF males.

Between 1997 and 2020, there were 1,600 certified deaths by suicide among members with ADF service since 1 January 1985.

For ex-serving males who left the ADF voluntarily, the suicide rate was found to be similar to Australian males and around one-third of the rate of those who left for involuntary medical reasons (22.5 compared with 69.8 per 100,000 population). For ex-serving females, there was no statistical difference between those who separated involuntarily for medical reasons and those who separated voluntarily.

The report also includes information on risk factors relating to deaths by suicide. Identifying common risk factors highlights the areas of a person's life experience that may need additional attention to provide the most effective suicide prevention interventions. However, it is important to note that the presence of one or more of these risk factors in an individual’s life does not necessarily mean they will have suicidal behaviours. The vast majority of people who experience these risk factors will not experience suicidal behaviours.

‘Of the risk factors examined, psychosocial risk factors were the most commonly identified among ADF males and females who died by suicide, followed by mental and behavioural disorders and natural disease.’ Psychosocial risk factors are defined as ‘social processes and social structures which can have an interaction with individual thought or behaviour and health outcomes’.

For both ADF males (49%) and females (66%) who died by suicide, the most commonly identified risk factor was presence of a mood (affective) disorder, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

For ADF males, problems in spousal relationship circumstances (41%) and suicidal ideation (29%) were the second and third most commonly identified risk factors among those who died by suicide. For ADF females, the second most-common risk factors were a personal history of self-harm and problems in spousal relationship circumstances or (both 38%).

Last month, the AIHW released separate but related suicide analysis prepared for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide’s interim report, outlining socioeconomic factors associated with ADF member suicide. The report can be found on the AIHW website. Socioeconomic characteristics of ex-serving ADF members who died by suicide.

Media enquiries: 02 6244 1148

For advice on how to report on mental illness and suicide responsibly: Mindframe guidelines - Mindframe

If the information presented raises any issues for you, these services can help:

Open Arms - Veterans and Families Counselling 1800 011 046, or

Open Arms Suicide Intervention page

Defence All-hours Support Line 1800 628 036

Defence Member and Family Helpline 1800 624 608

Defence Chaplaincy Support 1300 333 362

ADF Mental Health Services

Lifeline 13 11 14, or

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, or

Beyond Blue Support Service 1300 22 4636, or

For information on support provided by DVA:

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