Veteran backs calls for official inquiry into suicide rates of New Zealand military

This article deals with mental health problems, including suicide.

Calls are growing for an official inquiry into the number of New Zealand military veterans taking their own lives. The pleas come just weeks after Australia launched a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the matter, after months of pressure on its government.

Michael Walker served in the New Zealand Defence Force from 1990-2004, and says during that time mental health and depression weren't topics for "military men'' - but back then, it's just how things were.

"You were told the psychologist is over there and you can go and see them if you want, or we can sit here and drink a bottle of rum. No one got up to go and see the psychologist," Walker says.

In New Zealand, Veterans Affairs helps former service people who qualify for mental health support, and the Defence Force has a 24-hour helpline. Walker though, was used to keeping his own counsel. After leaving the Defence Force, he suffered post-traumatic stress after years of running on adrenaline, and anxiety. He says some anxiety was a good thing.

"It drives you to not let the team down. It drives you to move forward, and in the Defence Force, those are awesome things to have. But that driving was me running away from trauma."

In 2015, depressed and feeling worthless, Walker tried to end his life. While he was recovering he made himself a promise.

"I swore that I would not let this be for nothing, and that if anything I would use the leadership skills I gained from the Defence Force, to go on and lead within the mental health space, and help other veterans so they don't end up in the same space that I ended up."

Walker now helps run the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Association.The group helps veterans who have struggles or crave a community. The next crisis he's tackling is suicide among Kiwi veterans.

Walker and his comrades.
Walker and his comrades. Photo credit: Newshub / Supplied

"I served in 1990, and I got out in 2004. In that time, I've lost 22 friends who I served with, men and women."

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Newshub has spoken to a number of former personnel who have had similar experiences to Walker. The problem is our Defence Force keeps no data or research on the issue, making it almost impossible to know the scale of this problem.

Other countries, like Australia, do keep records. It's estimated around 500 veterans there have taken their lives since 2001.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the matter to find solutions.

Ramon Mahu was in his early twenties when he took his life. The Afghanistan veteran came back from service a changed man. His mother Sharon told Newshub from Perth, his brothers tried to step in when PTSD took over.

"Nobody could get through, nobody could get through," she said.

Ramon Mahu served in the Defence Force.
Ramon Mahu served in the Defence Force. Photo credit: Newshub / Supplied

Sharon says attitudes need to change. In her experience, people in Defence don't ask for help.

"They think it's unmanly to admit they have a psychological problem, and it's not... it's not."

Sharon, Walker, and other veterans' families have told Newsub they share a common goal.

They would both like to see an inquiry into veteran suicide in New Zealand.

"If an inquiry is going to pop the scab and look into the Defence Force and more so our veteran care, and how we can prevent these suicides, then yes, something needs to be done," Walker says.

The Ministry of Health wouldn't commit to an inquiry but, its suicide prevention office will meet with Veterans Affairs. It says it wants to better understand veterans issues.

Veterans Affairs meanwhile, says it's working to have data collated around veteran sucicide. Walker says the government needs to realise how big this problem is.

"I've lost more people to suicide than cancer, and cancer's pretty aggressive in our community, but I've lost more people to suicide, than cancer." 

Where to find help and support: 

Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633

Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)

Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584