Think Piece: Effective support for stress illness

Dr Helen Donovan.
Published Thursday 7 September, 2017

One in every 12 currently serving defence force members has experienced Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) within the past 12 months, and the total number of currently serving members with some form of mental health challenge (such as anxiety or depression) is likely to be much higher. In the past, defence force members were discharged if they were diagnosed with PTS. Others exited without a formal diagnosis, and lost connection to all their systems of support – medical, financial, housing and social. Today, there is a much better understanding of PTS and service-related stress illness. We better understand which psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies are more effective, and we know that peer support is likely to significantly amplify the positive impact of other approaches as veterans have often had experiences that are not well understood by the general public.

In August this year, I had my first experience of Trojan’s Trek, a peer-to-peer circuit breaker program for service and ex-service personnel who have been adversely affected by their service. It was powerful. Over 40 participants and staff came together in the bush for the six-day, live-in course, which is not a physical trek, but a journey of the mind. Over the six days, I was immersed in the transformational impact of the course content, delivered by skilled and experienced peer facilitators; my theoretical knowledge of why the program works became experiential understanding.

I commenced my role as the new Executive Officer of Trojan’s Trek early this year. I did so after reading the evaluations of the program by Flinders University and University of South Australia, and recognising the truly outstanding results that were being achieved in improvements to mental health for contemporary veterans experiencing service-related PTS and stress illness. Having previously worked as a psychologist in the Army Reserve I understood the layered value of these results; each individual participant who finds effective strategies and supports for managing their mental health represents the thin edge of the wedge of their community network. As an individual, they are often suffering deeply. Past trekkers have described feeling hopeless and many have shared their suicidal thoughts. This suffering extends out into their communities and has wide-ranging impacts on their family, friends and work. We all have so many roles in life – parents, partners, children, workers, carers, participants in local sports teams, volunteers, and so many more. Supporting the health of one individual, potentially saves a life – the life of someone’s father or mother; someone’s daughter or son, and supports the wellbeing of many.

Within the defence community we now have access to well-established research demonstrating the efficacy of peer support programs for strengthening mental health and re-building lives. With this understanding comes a responsibility to resource evidence-based peer support programs much more comprehensively than the current system supports. Each one of us can be active participants in this resourcing. Firstly, consider who is within your sphere of influence who may need help. Can you assist them to seek support from Trojan’s Trek, or elsewhere? Trojan’s Trek is a not-for-profit organisation and there is no cost for participants.

Secondly, support us to help us support them.

Dr. Helen Donovan is the Executive Officer of Trojan’s Trek Foundation and a psychologist with close ties to the military. She previously served as a psychologist in the Army Reserves and has four generations of family members who have served in either the Australian Army or the Royal Australian Air Force. She is a strong believer in the need to provide multi-faceted supports for the well-being of defence members (past and present) and their families. Dr Donovan has a background in the strategic planning, roll out, and evaluation of projects and programs relating to physical and mental health. She has previously worked with Victoria Police, Diabetes Australia, the Heart Foundation and Breast Cancer Network Australia. She completed her doctorate in health psychology and taught health behaviour change topics at Deakin University.

This piece was originally published in the Veterans’ News, a Veterans SA on line news and can be found here.

 

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