Anxieties about Anzac Day

I’m a bit nervous about writing down my thoughts about Anzac Day. Mostly, because the day itself makes me a bit nervous. And despite my confidence that this will come out as elongated and confusing dribble, I’m going to try and explain why.

As Australians, we learn pretty early on that ANZAC Day is a day to remember all Australians who have served and died in war and on operational service. It’s not just the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915, but it’s the acknowledgment of the spirit of Anzac. The spirit that has qualities of courage and mateship and sacrifice and continue to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.

In my time, I’ve been to dawn services and marches and these commemorations are truly humbling.

I’ve also been witness to the more raucous commemorations: beers and two-up before midday, the wearing of the flag as a cape at the pub and really drunk and often obnoxious young people fighting with each other by mid-afternoon.

And then there’s the Anzac Day sporting matches, with the NRL and AFL hosting their ‘traditional’ Anzac Day blockbusters. And no doubt it will come with elaborately enhanced commentary celebrating ‘bravery’ and nationhood’.

I’m not saying any of this is necessarily bad. But to me it makes me feel a little strange and a little uncomfortable. It seems like the further that we travel from those wars that saw mass involvement, the more we try and see their often terrible sacrifice in some way reflective or universal as to what we’re going through today – the courage required in the battle of football, the mateship that so lovingly occurs in binge drinking.

As we remember the veterans from the world wars, Korea and Vietnam on Anzac Day, I hope that we aren’t forgetting the sacrifice that is occurring every day right now. The sacrifice of the many men and women who are serving in more recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions and returning with the effects of these sacrifices. There is so little ceremony or commemoration or even acknowledgment of this.

A recent Senate inquiry has revealed that nearly one in four returned soldiers had experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months. Furthermore, the rate of suicidality - which the Federal Government defines as serious thoughts about taking one's own life, suicide plans and suicide attempts - was double that of the general population.

Since 2000, 106 serving defence personnel have killed themselves and a further 140 veterans have taken their own life. However, the senate enquiry found that there was no accurate record keeping measure of suicides for members and veterans and as such this number is believed to be much, much higher.

Research has also found that there has been a four-fold increase in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cases since Australian troops first went to war in Afghanistan in 2001. PTSD is a potentially debilitating mental condition characterised by intrusive recollections of a traumatic event. This might include repetitive nightmares and distress when faced with sights and sounds that remind the person of the trauma. People with PTSD are constantly on guard and look for threatening situations, meaning they’re in a constant state of high physiological arousal.

Given the distress these trauma memories can evoke, survivors try hard to avoid thinking about them or coming into contact with related reminders, sometimes going to great lengths to move to more remote areas to stay away from possible cues. Avoidance can also take the form of emotional numbing, where the person with PTSD experiences an emotional “shutdown”, with difficulty feeling love or happiness.

Survivors also may use alcohol or other substances to dampen levels of anxiety and blot out the nightmares and distressing memories. Such substance abuse, combined with emotional numbing, can significantly affect relationships with partners, families and friends. This, to me is an ultimate ‘sacrifice’.

However, the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness appears to be even stronger within the military world then in the normal population. Organisations, including Soldier on and the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations are vocal on this subject, reporting repeated occasions where members have actually lost their jobs or been sidelined after flagging mental health problems. Notably when we read articles or watch interviews on this topic, it is often after the member has left the Defence Force that they feel comfortable to speak about their experience of mental illness.

One can assume it will take a pretty massive cultural shift and quite a bit of time, before that level of stigma will be eradicated. And of course, it’s not a simple issue to address.

And this is why Anzac Day makes me nervous.

The Federal Government spent $83 million over four years to mark the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. In that same period, spending on ADF mental health care was $93 million.

It makes me wonder if we’ve got our priorities wrong. Given the current sacrifices that are being made by people in the here and now, should we focus some of our Anzac attention on them and their needs? Rather than shaming and stigmatizing them, should they not be offered more support and treatment regardless of whether they are a current member or a veteran?

Is it time to re-define the qualities – courage, mateship, sacrifice - of the spirit of Anzac? Could we celebrate the courage to speak out about the impact the sacrifice has on one’s health, relationships and life? Could mateship involve less drinking and focus more closely on treating each other with more compassion and love and less judgment? Because the sacrifices are still occurring today. Lest we forget that.

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
beyondblue: 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service: 1800 011 046


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