Demand for mental health services rises by 50 per cent for war veterans during COVID-19 pandemic

Help is here: Kate O'Donoghue draws on her lived experience to support veterans and their families through counselling service, Open Arms. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Help is here: Kate O'Donoghue draws on her lived experience to support veterans and their families through counselling service, Open Arms. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

There used to be a saying in the Army; "If they had wanted you to have a family, they'd have issued you one."

That sentiment had rung true for Kate O'Donoghue's family.

Her late father was a Vietnam veteran who had struggled with his mental health for as long as she could remember. But he was not diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until he was in his 50s.

"He was quite impacted, but he had lived up until that point with no real support, and the family had no idea how to support him, or what was going on for him," Ms O'Donoghue said.

"His mental health went up and down, and we didn't really understand why. We just adapted and modified around his moods. There wasn't much education for the families then."

But now, as the wife of an Afghanistan veteran, things were very different. There were organisations within the military specifically aimed at supporting families across a broad range of issues, including mental health.

There were services such as Open Arms - a counselling service for veterans and their families. Ms O'Donoghue now works with Open Arms as a family peer advisor.

"Families are much more included now," she said. "Now, if my husband struggles with mental health, I have much more awareness and more tools at my disposal than we ever had with my father... No one serves alone.

"Everyone who signs up is someone's child, someone's partner or someone's parent. If their service has an impact on them - and I'm yet to meet anyone whose service hasn't, positively or negatively - they are looking for insight into understanding their loved one's experience.

"They can receive counselling that is really tailored specifically for veterans and their families."

Ms O'Donoghue shared her story on Vietnam Veterans Day as data collected by Open Arms showed a 50 per cent increase in demand from March until June, 2020, compared to the same time last year.

"It has been a hell of a year," she said. "During the pandemic, a lot of the things people do to keep themselves in good mental health - access community groups and activities, fitness and health - a lot of them are out of reach at the moment. But there is a lot of support."

Dr David Cockram, a Vietnam veteran and clinical psychologist, said a sense of not feeling safe could elevate existing mental health issues for veterans.

"For those with PTSD it is very difficult to be confined, making the lockdown restrictions a real challenge," he said. "Engaging in counselling or connecting with peer networks is seen as a safe place. The ability to do this online or over the phone has helped reduce the stigma."

Open Arms offers a 24-hour telephone counselling through a dedicated support line-1800 011 046, but visit openarms.gov.au/ to find out more.

This story Mental health support for war vets needed more than ever first appeared on Newcastle Herald.