Senator BARTLETT (3.15 p.m.)—My question is to Senator Ellison, the minister representing the ministers responsible for veterans and Defence personnel issues. I refer to media reports that 121 Australian Defence Force personnel who have recently fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have been discharged as being unfit for further service due to mental illness—including anxiety and depression—with 23 of those people reported to have serious psychological problems as a result of their service. There have also been reports that two returned soldiers have committed suicide after returning from the war zone. Can the minister confirm these reports and can he indicate what ongoing assistance is being provided to those personnel who have been discharged in these circumstances and their families? What action is the government taking to ensure the incidence of harm such as this being done to our servicemen and servicewomen is significantly reduced?
Senator ELLISON—I can say to the Senate that we have had substantial funding dedicated to ensure that doctors, medical specialists and allied health providers are able to continue to provide free quality health care to veterans; and this case would be no exception. As to the details of the suicides that Senator Bartlett has mentioned, I am not aware of those. Of course for privacy reasons we would not go into the identity of those concerned. I will look into that and if there is any further information I can provide the Senate then I will.
Veterans returning from Iraq would be able to receive the standard care that we provide to veterans generally. We have provided substantial funding of some additional $600 million. We do have a suicide prevention program. It is of course an issue of concern that people would suffer depression as a result of any deployment—and that they may take their lives. I can say that we have 23 cases of mental health problems being treated. There are other cases which are being treated. I will get further details of those and provide them to the Senate.
Senator BARTLETT—Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister agree that this degree of severe psychological harm is unacceptable? Does the government believe that more can be done to prevent or to assist in the treatment of psychological illness as a result of active service? Can the minister indicate to the Senate whether the government is planning to do anything differently from now on to guarantee that we do not create a new group of returned service people who have put their lives on the line for their country and their government only to suffer enormously when they return? What is the government planning to do differently before it seeks to commit further troops to these same theatres?
Senator ELLISON—As I understand it, a 24-hour confidential hotline is part of the prevention strategy which I have mentioned. There are specialist counselling services which are provided. There are also fly-in mental health support capabilities for people deployed and post-operation psychological screening. I might add that 75 per cent of ADF suicides occur with no deployment history, compared to five per cent who have been deployed. I think we have to be careful in linking a certain deployment with a subsequent suicide, but certainly the matter is taken very seriously. There is a comprehensive program in place. I will check to see what further detail I can provide Senator Bartlett in relation to this issue.