How military veterans are fighting depression

The Aussie 10 Peaks Challenge through the Snowy Mountains. Photo courtesy Mates 4 Mates. HEALTH
The Aussie 10 Peaks Challenge through the Snowy Mountains. Photo courtesy Mates 4 Mates.

> PhD research to reveal benefits of competitive sport for veterans

Walking the challenging Kokoda Track, climbing Mt Kosciuszko, and undertaking other adventurous pursuits may be the key to helping treat depression among military veterans, new research shows.

The preliminary finding is from a UniSA study of 45 current and ex-serving Australian military personnel who signed up for adventure-based challenges in the past 12 months.

UniSA PhD candidate Daniel Padovan, who led the study, found strong evidence that adventure tours not only reignited a sense of camaraderie among veterans but also improved their social interaction in the months afterwards.

The adventure experiences were run as part of the Rehabilitation Adventure Challenge program provided by Mates 4 Mates, a not-for-profit organisation that helps support wounded, injured or ill current and ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel and their families.

Groups of between five and 10 defence veterans bonded over life-changing experiences in the jungles of Papua New Guinea as well as the NSW Snowy Mountains, tackling the Aussie 10 Peaks Challenge.

“Veterans who took part in such tours all reported an increase in self-esteem as well as less reliance on alcohol and other negative coping behaviours afterwards,” Padovan says.

“Crucially, their levels of depression significantly decreased, which is an outstanding outcome.”

The findings coincide with UniSA awarding a new PhD scholarship (see below) to examine how training and participation in the Invictus Games affects the psychological, social and physical wellbeing of military veterans.

Padovan’s research comes in light of a 2016 study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) revealing that 325 ADF veterans took their own life between 2001 and 2015 as a result of depression. Another News Corp special investigation also found that between January and July 2016 alone, 41 ADF personnel and veterans committed suicide. These seven months in 2016 equalled the total number of ADF personnel killed in Afghanistan during 13 years of war at the time.

“This year marks the 70th anniversary of the ADF’s involvement in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping activities and the 103rd anniversary of its involvement in global conflicts since the beginning of the First World War. It is important that we recognise and value the significant contributions that our military personnel have made – and continue to make,” Padovan says.

“With these global deployments in mind, we need to look at the impact of war on mental health and how we can address the psychological fallout on many members of our defence forces.”

The UniSA study could also have positive spinoffs for people working in other dangerous and stressful professions, including police, firefighters and emergency services personnel who often experience job-related depression, Padovan says.

“It is sobering to note that suicide due to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder is the number one killer of men and women in dangerous professions year on year.

“In Australia, more military personnel and first responders die from these causes than are killed in the line of duty.”

Daniel Padovan is a PhD candidate in UniSA’s School of Management. His thesis, Examining the effects of adventure tours as a treatment approach for depression: a focus on military veterans, is supervised by Dr Michael Gross, Dr Duncan Murray and Adjunct Professor Sam Huang.

Find out about UniSA’s defence industry expertise and engagement here.

PhD research to reveal benefits of competitive sport for veterans

New research by UniSA will help determine the benefits of wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel training for, and taking part in, an international competitive sporting event – the Invictus Games.

The Invictus Games were developed to harness the power of sport to help wounded, injured and sick service personnel physically, psychologically and socially by inspiring recovery, supporting rehabilitation, and generating a wider understanding and respect for those who serve their country.

A new UniSA program will provide allied health training services to those who aspire to compete in the Invictus Games, drawing on the expertise of health professionals and UniSA students.

In partnership with The Road Home – a leading national veterans’ health and wellbeing research organisation – the Invictus Pathways Program will also provide a fully-funded PhD scholarship to investigate the long-term effect participation has on personnel’s health and wellbeing.

Suzana Freegard has been awarded The Road Home Invictus Pathways Scholarship, supporting her to undertake a PhD through which she will examine how training and participation in the Invictus Games affects the psychological, social and physical wellbeing of military veterans.Suzana Freegard has been awarded The Road Home Invictus Pathways Scholarship, supporting her to undertake a PhD through which she will examine how training and participation in the Invictus Games affects the psychological, social and physical wellbeing of military veterans.

Psychology graduate Suzana Freegard, who has extensive experience in health research, has been awarded The Road Home Invictus Pathways Scholarship. The scholarship is funded by The Road Home in partnership with The Hospital Research Foundation and will support Suzana to evaluate the psychological, social and physical health and rehabilitation of participating service personnel, to travel to the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney and to attend specialist conferences.

Suzana says she is passionate about helping people in some way through her work.

“I have always been interested in the impact of physical activity on mental wellbeing,” she says.

“What attracted me to this project specifically were the personal experiences of the military personnel and veterans who were training for and competing in the games. I found their stories very moving and inspiring, and I knew I really wanted to be a part of the whole project.”

Suzana left her home in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s because of the Bosnian War.

“My background has given me an insight into some of the consequences of being in the war torn areas which I believe will be helpful in conducting my study,” she says.

She says it could also bring about improvements in other health and wellbeing programs for veterans.

The head of the School of Health Sciences Professor Roger Eston, the School of Health Sciences’ Dr Steven Milanese, scholarship recipient Suzana Freegard and The Road Home Executive General Manager Karen May at the Remembrance Business Breakfast.The head of the School of Health Sciences Professor Roger Eston, the School of Health Sciences’ Dr Steven Milanese, scholarship recipient Suzana Freegard and The Road Home Executive General Manager Karen May at the Remembrance Business Breakfast.

Head of the School of Health Sciences, Professor Roger Eston, says it’s a unique opportunity – the first in the world – to assess the psychological importance and impact on the athletes and their families of participating and training for competition on the world stage through the Invictus Games.

“The study will provide valuable and critical insight on the importance of taking part in the training for the Invictus Games – a wonderful and inspiring event,” Prof Eston says.

“We are hugely grateful to The Hospital Research Foundation and The Road Home  for providing the scholarship to undertake such an important area of study and to Prince Harry and the Invictus Games Foundation for supporting and agreeing to the title of the scholarship.”

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