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Veteran health – an overview

21 June 2024 - Dr Catherine Eltringham

A veteran has certain personal and service characteristics which may influence their health and welfare. Personal characteristics (age, sex, Indigenous status, place of residence) are common to both veterans and the general population. Service characteristics (type of service, conflict/trauma experience, rank, reason for discharge, transition experience) are specific to the veteran population.

Key Learnings

  • Both personal and service-specific attributes contribute to a veteran’s health and wellbeing.

  • Military service personnel generally exhibit the “Healthy Soldier” effect.

  • Deployment exposes military personnel to unique physical and psychological stressors.

  • While many ADF personnel transition to civilian life with ease, some face significant challenges.

The “healthy soldier” effect

Despite the challenges of military service, people serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are generally in better health than the general population, due to:

  • the screening processes for selection,

  • the requirement to maintain a high level of physical and physiological health,

  • access to funded medical services for the duration of service.

Unique occupational stressors

The unique experience of military service can see some personnel, particularly those who are deployed, endure physical and/or psychological injuries that present them with longer term health and welfare challenges different to those of the Australian population. 

The 2020-21 National Health Survey revealed that:

  • Males who had ever served in the ADF were less likely to rate their health as excellent or very good compared to those who had never served (45% compared with 57%, respectively).

Transition back to civilian life

According to a 2016 Department of Defence report, around 5,000 servicing men and women (9% of those serving) transition out of the ADF each year back into civilian life. Many make the transition with relative ease. However, while many military personnel manage a successful transition, some struggle with re-integrating back into civilian life.

Data from the Physical Health Status Study revealed that, compared with current serving ADF, transitioned ADF members were more likely to:

  • report poorer physical health,

  • have increased lifestyle risk factors,

  • report poorer self-perceived health, satisfaction and quality of life.

Among the transitioned ADF personnel, poorer physical health outcomes were reported for:

  • DVA clients compared with those who were not DVA clients

  • ex-serving members compared with Active/Inactive Reservists

  • those who had been medically discharged compared with those who had been discharged for other reasons.

Early intervention is important

Recent research shows that the first few years after separation from service are crucial to the overall wellbeing of transitioned personnel. This is, therefore, a critical period to target for early intervention.

Health conditions

In general, long-term physical and mental health conditions have been identified as an issue of concern for Australia's veterans; in particular, mental health conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcohol dependence disorder. 

Lifestyle risk factors

Veterans' health is influenced by behaviours that may be related to ADF service or individual lifestyle.  Understanding the choices veterans make regarding their lifestyle and behaviours and the impact this has on their health will help you to identify areas for behavioural change. 

Wellbeing profile

A person's health and wellbeing are influenced by socioeconomic characteristics as much as individual factors (such as health behaviours or genetic makeup). The socioeconomic status of veterans may be influenced by factors relating to their ADF service.

The following health and welfare domains, as defined by AIHW, are useful to keep in mind for assessing the veteran and family's wellbeing:

  • Health

  • Housing

  • Social support

  • Education and skills

  • Employment

  • Income and finance

  • Safety and justice

Current state of knowledge

There has been very little systematic research examining the physical health and wellbeing of transitioned military personnel after they leave the Australian Defence Force. Much of the research is focused on specific ADF cohorts (deployed personnel, non-deployed personnel or veterans) or specific deployment cohorts (in Australia and internationally).

Reports typically draw on a range of data covering current, reserve and former serving ADF personnel (whether in active deployment, peacekeeping operations or in service without deployment) as well as their dependants, including partners, children and war widow(ers). The relatively low numbers of women who have ever served in the ADF constrains reporting on the health of women who have served; therefore, reports are typically constrained to presenting data for men only.

1. AIHW (2023). Health of veterans web report (uses 2016 Census data as the primary source of data to inform wellbeing outcomes).

2. AIHW (2018). A profile of Australia's veterans.

3. Kelsall et al. (2018). Physical Health Status Summary Report, Mental Health and Wellbeing Study. Canberra: the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

4. Van Hoof et al. 2018. Mental Health and Wellbeing Transition Study: mental health prevalence. Canberra: Department of Defence and the DVA.

5. Sim M et al. (2003). Australian Gulf War veterans' health study 2003. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, University of Western Australia, Health Services Australia.

6. DVA Content Package M1 - Master

Dr Catherine Eltringham
Dr Catherine Eltringham

Catherine is a GP in Geelong, Victoria. She has been involved in a wide variety of Medical Education opportunities, these include GP training, lecturing in Medicine at Deakin University, and providing clinical consultancy for the Deakin Indigenous Health team. Over recent years Catherine has moved into planning and facilitating the professional development of Medical Educators and GP Supervisors as well as learning (like everyone else) to do all of this online. Catherine strives to ensure her education events are engaging and innovative, with a dose of appropriate fun. 

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