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Veterans' 2017 suicide toll is 84, say activists

The Age logo The Age 31/12/2017 Carolyn Webb
Loren Ries drew this on a road in Huonville, Tasmania, for the Veteran Chalk Challenge to draw attention to 84 Australian veterans' suicides in 2017. © Supplied Loren Ries drew this on a road in Huonville, Tasmania, for the Veteran Chalk Challenge to draw attention to 84 Australian veterans' suicides in 2017.

An estimated 84 defence force veterans committed suicide in 2017, sparking an attack on the Federal Government for allegedly failing to protect them.

Veterans' advocates say the toll is a "conservative estimate" based on notifications from families and police reports.

To draw public attention they have have launched the Veteran Chalk Challenge group. Participants scrawl the 84 figure on public surfaces and post it on Facebook and Twitter, #veteranchalkchallenge.

Spokesman Doug Steley  said the "legal graffiti" is also a call for a royal commission into the cause of veterans' suicides, and into "what we believe is a link between the Department of Veterans Affairs and these suicides". 

Mr Steley said the 84 figure "is a conservative estimate and only the deaths that veterans themselves can confirm as the government is still unwilling to even attempt to keep a record of the number of deaths".

Mr Steley said the veterans had "offered so much to Australia and our government to protect them; now when they need help they are being either ignored or actively targeted by an uncaring, inflexible system."

Chalk drawings are appearing around Australia to show the high number of veterans' suicides. © Warren Melling Chalk drawings are appearing around Australia to show the high number of veterans' suicides. The toll was compiled by veteran Scott Harris, from the The Warrior's Return Facebook page, who is recording current military, and veterans', suicides dating back to the 1880s. 

He said every few days, he gets an email saying "my loved one took their own life" - either recently or in past years, and he adds it to the toll for the year it took place. He has contacts in Defence and emergency services, and he confirms it with families, death certificates and coroners' inquests.

Mr Harris said the 2017 figure of 84 was up from 79 people in 2016, "but that's only what we know of".  

Mr Harris hopes the toll gets people talking about the extent of veterans' mental health problems and "opens doors to stop people taking that final step, taking their own lives".

A DVA spokesman pointed to a speech then veterans affairs minister Dan Tehan made to Parliament in October in response to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee's Report on the Inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel.

Mr Tehan quoted Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW) figures that between 2001 and 2015, 325 veterans took their own lives but said "one suicide is one too many".

Veterans' advocates are posting public chalk drawings online for the national Veteran Chalk Challenge, highlighting the toll of veterans' suicides. © Supplied Veterans' advocates are posting public chalk drawings online for the national Veteran Chalk Challenge, highlighting the toll of veterans' suicides. He said the government had agreed to all the committee's recommendations and announced a $31 million package and new programs "that will deliver better support for veterans and their families".

The spokesman said anyone who has served at least one day in the full-time ADF can access free treatment for any mental health condition.

Veterans could call 133 254 or email nlhc@dva.gov.au to seek assistance.

If you are troubled by this report or experiencing a personal crisis, you can call Lifeline 131 114 or visit lifeline.org.au.

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