Senate Inquiry misses opportunity to consider connection between ADF Mental Health and Criminal offending

For the last decade and a half, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been in almost constant deployment in overseas military operations, including peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, and combat operations. ADF members are undertaking longer and more frequent periods on service overseas, and increasing their risk of experiencing mental health problems.

After two delays, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee reported this week on its Inquiry into Mental Health of Australian Defence Force Members and Veterans.

The inquiry was initiated by Greens spokesperson for Veterans’ Affairs, Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, a graduate of the Officer Training School of the Australian Defence Force Academy. Whish-Wilson was concerned about the prevalence of mental illness, suicide and substance abuse among defence force personnel returning from deployment and other service.

The terms of reference for the inquiry concerned the extent and significance of mental ill-health and post-traumatic stress disorder; mental health strategies and policies of the ADF; diagnosis, treatment and support available through the ADF and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs; barriers to accessing mental health services; support for partners, carers and families; the growth of homelessness; and the effectiveness of training, education and support upon discharge from the ADF.

The report made recommendations covering screening, recording, monitoring, tracking and de-stigmatising mental ill-health issues, and actively promoting mental health. These matters are of critical importance and the Senate is to be commended for the review and the report.

However, the representation of returned service people in the criminal justice system is an area that needs investigation but was ignored in the terms of reference and the recommendations of the Inquiry.

There has been some academic and media attention on returned service personnel and criminal justice, including some attention in the UK to levels of criminal offending.

However, criminal offending has received limited political, media and academic attention in Australia, and there has been no systematic study on levels and reasons for criminal offending, or support measures that have or could reduce it.

Organisations for returned service people have long been concerned about over-representation of their members in the criminal justice system and prisons.

Offending and incarceration rates were, minimally, raised during the House of Representatives’ Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Inquiry into the Care of ADF Personnel Wounded and Injured on Operations in 2013.

The Young Diggers, a not-for-profit organisation providing on-line care and welfare to serving and ex-serving military personnel and their families, provided a submission about arrests and incarceration for alcohol related violence resulting from the stress and isolation experienced by wounded and injured personnel upon their return to Australia.

However, the matter of criminal offending was not reflected in the recommendations of the final report, or followed up by any government since then.

Criminal offending was again raised with the current Senate Inquiry. The submission of the Royal Australian Regiment Corporation made the connection between mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, crime and imprisonment.

The final report of the Inquiry also included ‘Additional Comments’ from the Australian Greens, prepared by Senator Peter Whish-Wilson. The Comments made the recommendation that:

‘That Defence and DVA report annually to the parliament on the ‘state of mental health’ of current and former ADF members including data on the rates of mental ill-health, homelessness, incarceration, suicidality, neurological conditions and any other issues or indicators relevant to instances of mental ill- health amongst defence personnel.’

However, this suggestion was not included as a formal recommendation of the official report.

There is widespread recognition within the ADF, the government and the community, that deployment results in physical and mental health issues especially PTSD, anxiety and depression, and that these medical condtions, in turn, contribute to relationship breakdown, withdrawal from friends and family, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harming, and homelessness.

Criminal offending is an inevitable consequence and contributor to this complex range of interdependent problems, and yet the Senate Inquiry’s terms of reference, final report, and most of the submissions to it, fail to even acknowledge its existence, much make any commitment to really understanding or addressing the problem.

As a matter of urgency, the causes and consequences of criminal offending need to be an integral part of the ongoing inquiry into the post deployment experience of ADF members.


Kellie Toole is a Law Lecturer at the Adelaide law School, and member of the Board of Management of RUMLAE with a research and teaching interest in military justice. She is heading a research project on veteran representation in the criminal justice system. Anyone who has an interest in the area is welcome to contact Kellie at

This entry was posted in Commerce, Innovation & Technology, Events, International Affairs, News, Research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.