Veterans and their families who are struggling during the coronavirus pandemic have been increasingly accessing support through Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling in a positive step forward in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health.
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester said the coronavirus pandemic had been tough for all Australians, veterans included, with Open Arms recording a more than 50 per cent increase in counselling sessions from March to June this year compared to the same time last year.
“This has been an incredibly challenging time, however, I am heartened that messages about seeking mental health support are being heard, which is reflected in the statistics of veterans and their families contacting Open Arms for specialist support,” Mr Chester said.
“Reaching out for mental health support has never been so important and I encourage veterans and their families who may be struggling, to call Open Arms.”
“Open Arms was founded by our Vietnam veterans and is their enduring legacy of ensuring all veterans and their families can access free and confidential mental health support, for which I know they are grateful.”
Dr Stephanie Hodson, Open Arms’ National Manager, psychologist and Army veteran, said that contacting a service like Open Arms is an important step which many service personnel find difficult, particularly older veterans and those who served in the Vietnam War.
“In March to June 2020, we saw a marked increase of counselling sessions compared to 2019. During this time, we’ve also seen more veterans coming to us to help manage anxiety before it escalates into something more serious,” she said.
“The coronavirus pandemic has been really tough for all Australians, veterans included. However, the rise in counselling is not necessarily a negative; we’re encouraged that veterans are proactively reaching out.”
“There’s a common term we use in the military about ‘squaring something away’, whether it’s folding your socks correctly or getting your kit sorted so you can then help those around you. It’s not too dissimilar from a mental health perspective — veterans are using our service during coronavirus to square away their anxiety or outlook, so they can get back on track and onto helping others.”
Dr David Cockram, an infantry Vietnam War veteran and clinical psychologist, said veterans have had a unique response to the current pandemic.
“For veterans, a sense of not feeling safe can elevate existing mental health issues. For those with PTSD it is very difficult to be confined, making the lockdown restrictions a real challenge,” he explained.
“Engaging in counselling or connecting with peer networks is seen as a safe place for veterans, particularly at the moment. The ability to do this online or over the phone has helped reduce some of the stigma around it.”
Kate O’Donoghue is a daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and spouse of a veteran who served in Afghanistan. She is currently a Family Peer Advisor with Open Arms, where she works with veterans and their family members one-on-one to support them on their mental health journey.
She said her father’s experience has helped her understand the importance of connecting with people who have a shared experience.
“My father didn’t talk about the impact that the Vietnam War had on him until he was 62 years old. The change in contemporary veterans, such as my husband who served in Afghanistan, is a complete turnaround; talking about mental health is now a part of their training.”
“Among the clients I work with at Open Arms, I’ve seen true strength and resilience. Defence personnel are conditioned to overcome adversity and are used to being inconvenienced for the greater good. They’re not going to complain about wearing face masks if it helps to protect others.”
“The veteran community has really come together and also connected on social media to support each other during this time,” she said.
Dr Hodson said the impact of coronavirus meant Open Arms has had to adapt its approach to enable more remote service, which has the potential for long-term benefits.
“When the initial restrictions were put in place across Australia, we did a lot more outreach on social media and provided telehealth services.”
“It’s proven that you don’t need to be in the same room as a clinician to receive quality care.”
“My message to veterans as well as other Australians is we don’t expect to fix a broken leg on our own yet we can feel the need to fix ourselves when it comes to mental health; it takes courage to ask for help.”