David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Mental issues on rise in military

Force-wide health and safety review announced in year of record psychological assessments.

Five New Zealand Defence Force personnel deployed in Afghanistan since 2008 have lost their lives. Photo / US Army
Five New Zealand Defence Force personnel deployed in Afghanistan since 2008 have lost their lives. Photo / US Army

A record number of defence staff last year sought psychological help as the country suffered its greatest combat loss since Vietnam.

Statistics from the New Zealand Defence Force show the troops assessed for return to New Zealand from Afghanistan went from zero in 2008 to 19 last year. NZDF was asked, but did not detail, how many of the 19 people assessed left Afghanistan.

Over the same period, the half-year Kiwi deployment of about 120 personnel to Bamiyan lost five people in two attacks. Earlier in the year, Corporal Doug Hughes took his own life, with allegations later made that he had been bullied about his sexuality.

Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman has announced that an NZDF-wide review of health and safety issues will be carried out. The review was announced following revelations of blunders with a lifejacket which led to a fatal training accident, costing the life of a soldier.

The mental health figures were supplied in response to an Official Information Act request about mental health issues.

Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said in his response that NZDF recognised "maintenance of the mental health of its members is of high importance due to the activities inherent in military service".

However, he also conceded that it was more difficult for military staff to get help when they were on deployment. "The immediate availability of psychological support can be constrained by the nature of parts of the deployed mission."

He said an example would be forward operating bases and "the relatively austere nature of such outposts".

Corporal Hughes took his life while off duty at Romero Forward Patrol - the sort of base referred to by Lieutenant General Jones.

Labour's Defence spokesman Phil Goff said the rise in the figures showed there was a need to learn lessons about mental health care for troops overseas.

He said the trauma of experiencing young mates being killed would have impacted strongly on serving staff and showed NZDF needed to consider its focus on psychological support.

"I think the public and the serving personnel and their families need to know the defence force have got it right around the culture of safety," Mr Coleman said.

Mental health

NZDF personnel with psychological conditions
2007: 59
2008: 72
2009: 94
2010: 123
2011: 134

NZDF staff assessed for psychological repatriation from Afghanistan
2008: 0
2009: 5
2010: 9
2011: 8
2012: 19

- NZ Herald

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