David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Defence suicide rate on the rise

Authorities dismiss Afghanistan conflict as factor in soldiers' self-inflicted deaths but training regime changed

Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones. Photo / NZ Herald
Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones. Photo / NZ Herald

Two defence staff killed themselves and seven others attempted to do so in the past year.

It creates a sombre total of five suicides in the past two years compared with five suicides in the eight years before.

Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said the number of personnel was stable - but also gave a rate of suicide for NZDF which was 20 per cent higher than a figure he gave back in March.

The NZDF suicide rate has gone from one suicide per 10,000 people to 1.2 suicides.

The most recent death referred to the coroner was of Signaller Jonathan Thomas Hosken, 28, at Burnham camp. Three of the seven attempted suicides also took place at Burnham.

Militaries around the world are grappling with rising suicide levels among troops returning from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The conflict in Afghanistan - in which 10 NZDF personnel were killed - was dismissed as being a factor in suicide-related issues.

General Jones said the NZDF was - after 10 years of deployments to Afghanistan - "currently developing a suicide awareness training package for delivery at pre-deployment training".

"Pre-deployment training" is the preparation training for troops about to be posted into conflict zones.

The general said all personnel also received basic training in stress management and resilience "in order to perform and meet the demands of military service".

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said the suicides in NZDF had no relation to deployment to Afghanistan.

"The recent NZDF cases of suicide are not linked to overseas deployments. Rather, these cases reflect the wider society pressures that young New Zealanders face today."

He said he had recently quizzed General Jones about mental health support for troops. He said he was assured there was "a wide range of support to personnel who are experiencing mental health issues".

His office said a defence-wide review of health and safety issues did not include mental health issues.

Dr Said Shahtahmasebi, of Waikato's Wintec and Kentucky University in the US, said exposure to a heightened feeling of danger and the life-or-death decisions made would affect soldiers in conflict zones.

"You never know when you pull the trigger and see somebody you've shot in front of you what effect that will have. Some people will obviously be affected - how much of an effect it is, we can't put that aside."

Canterbury University researcher Mason Head, working with Dr Sue Tait, has studied post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of recent conflicts.

Mr Head said returning soldiers found it difficult to "switch off" and had difficulty reconnecting with the person they were before deployment. He said they struggled to voice problems.

"The people who want help the most can't ask for it."


Suicides in NZDF

• 2004 - 1
• 2005 - 0
• 2006 - 1
• 2007 - 0
• 2008 - 1
• 2009 - 1
• 2010 - 0
• 2011 - 1
• 2012 - 3
• 2013 - 2

Where to get help

Youth services: (06) 3555 906

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)

The Word

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24-hour service)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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