Moral training essential to reducing veterans' suicides, says chaplain

Spiritual fitness and moral training are essential to finding solutions to the veteran suicide crisis, says Australian Defence Force (ADF) Chaplain Phil Riley, who says the idea is gaining acceptance within Defence.

Speaking to Eternity to mark Remembrance Day, the Darwin-based Chaplain says the need to develop spiritual wellbeing has gained momentum within Defence over the past several years as the number of reported suicides by ADF veterans and servicemen and women has soared.

The Defence Force recognises there are three pillars of health – physical, mental/intellectual and spiritual or moral – but the moral side has until recently been neglected.

“They have always done character training at entry points, but there’s no ongoing continuation and then maintaining of what we’re coining as spiritual fitness,” he says.

In the wake of the announcement of a Royal Commission into Veterans Suicides, data released in September shows that more than 1062 ADF veterans and 211 serving personnel died by suicide between 2001 and 2019.

Between 2015 and 2017 the suicide rate for ex-serving men was 1.18 times higher than for civilian Australian men. For women, the rate is 2.15 times higher than for civilian Australian women.

Riley, who is a former soldier and parish minister, revealed that a trial is taking place around the country to retrain some service people who are in the process of transitioning back into civilian society.

However, he is disappointed that the program goes for only three months, which is too short to see results. He believes there need to be follow-ups after two to three years.

There’s no formalised way for a veteran to access chaplaincy under the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He says basic training for army recruits goes for a minimum of 12 weeks and basic training for officers is for 12 months.

“We need to have something at the far end, somewhere equivalent in time and formalised, to train them how to be a civilian again, basically,” he says.

Riley would like to see more systematic training that builds robustness around life’s big questions so that a person’s identity does not rest so heavily on being a uniformed member of the Defence force.

“There’s been small efforts all over the place, but lots of people slip through the cracks,” he says.

The problem is particularly acute among the young, he says, who often have a great desire to serve in the Defence Force but generally don’t have the Judeo-Christian framework of previous generations.

Riley has been running philosophical workshops in which he challenges combatants to discover a coherent worldview that addresses the big, existential questions, such as where do we come from, why are we here, what’s right and what’s wrong, and where are we going? In other words, questions of origin, meaning, morality and destiny.

He believes that finding purpose and meaning can create a more robust character that will equip a combatant to face the chaos and uncertainty of conflict and indeed life itself.

“For a lot of individuals, they’ve had a great desire to come and join the Defence Force to serve in some way, shape or form, and whether they do two years or 20 years, or even more, they are rightly inculcated into the culture,” he explains.

“There is an element of it being quite separate culturally to the rest of society. It has its own language … And then, at whatever point, be it two years or 20, it’s time to leave and whether that’s of your own volition or whether you’re injured and have to go … it’s ripping your whole foundation out from under you and all of a sudden, you’ve got no meaning and purpose in life.”

They also need training in practical steps to reintegrate into society because a lot of veterans don’t know where to find a doctor if they’re feeling unwell and haven’t even got a Medicare card.

One important reform that is about to be rolled out is ‘moral injury treatment’

Another reform Riley would like to see introduced is providing chaplains to veterans.

“One of the big gaps is that there’s no formalised way for a veteran to access chaplaincy under the Department of Veterans Affairs. If they’re inclined, of course, they could walk into the local parish or whatever. Chances are the local parish minister doesn’t have much exposure to Defence, especially if they’re not in a garrison town like Darwin or Townsville.”

The problem is one of resources because uniform chaplains do not have the capacity to take that on.

“Perhaps it’s former chaplains who can fulfil that role because you do need to have that cultural experience to be effective and for the veterans to trust you,” says Riley.

One important reform that is about to be rolled out is ‘moral injury treatment’, a phrase that was coined post-Vietnam by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay.

“So it’s taken this long to actually get some decent traction, particularly in Australia. We haven’t completed the full suite of training, but there’s two individuals, Lindsey Carey and Tim Hodgson, have been doing a whole bunch of research in the Australian context and they’re proposing that we, as Defence chaplains, use a thing called pastoral narrative discourse.”

He explained that the idea of moral injury was closely linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It involves a form of trauma that results when a person feels that either they have omitted to do something or something has been done to them where they’ve been betrayed by a moral authority. This produces similar signs and symptoms of PTSD such as depression and a sense of unworthiness, without some of the heightened anxiety of PTSD.

“So this pastoral narrative discourse is the idea of trying to get individuals to articulate what the event or series of events were that led to them having some moral injuries, some betrayal, or ill-discipline where they’ve betrayed their own moral values. It takes them through a means by which they can have reconciliation and restoration either within themselves or with a third party … It’s based on the confession, essentially.”

He said all the chaplains across Defence had just received phase two of training and would be fully qualified at phase three around March next year.

“The reality is chaplains have been doing that type of thing for a long time. This just formalises it.”

It would link with health treatment, so if someone was seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist for some mental health problem that has a moral component to it, they’ll be able to refer the member to a chaplain, who can co-treat them for this spiritual injury or moral injury that’s occurred to them.

“It’s about treating the whole person and I think this would help veterans as well.”