Five years ago Shane Healey, a former ADF soldier and Special Operations intelligence analyst, found himself sitting in a room with a psychologist tasked with helping Australian military veterans, some potentially on the brink of suicide.
He’d deployed on multiple tours to Afghanistan, where he “really saw a lot of combat and death”, and worked as a private military contractor in Iraq, including fighting in the ferocious second battle of Fallujah.
Back in supposedly safe Sydney, the 48-year-old’s life was falling apart.
He was becoming increasingly concerned about his struggle to adjust to civilian life, and a series of episodes, when pieced together, raised red flags.
In that therapy room, Healey began to share his story with the psychologist, confiding in her the things he’d seen and done on those deployments, and the difficult emotions he was now uncomfortably left to sit with.
“After about 30 minutes, she goes, ‘I’ve got to stop’. And I said, ‘Oh, what’s up?’ So she said, ‘I can’t deal with you. It’s too heavy.'”
Confused, Healey got up and left.
Later that night, his phone pinged and lit up.
It was a text message from the psychologist, Healey said.
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you,” he said the message read.
“I think your problem is that you’re a lion trying to become a domesticated cat.”
The analogy stuck with him, Healey said, as his mental health continued to deteriorate and he spiralled all the way into hospital.
Since 1997, according to latest government figures released today, one ADF member dies by suicide every five days.
The overwhelming majority of those ADF suicides happen after people leave the military, where grim statistics show those who have served become highly vulnerable, often ending up alone, disillusioned, homeless or battling multiple addictions.
Men who leave the ADF are 26 per cent more likely to die by suicide than the broader male Australian population, while the rate of suicide for ex-serving females is even worse, more than twice as likely, or 107 per cent, to die by suicide than Australian females not in the military.
Tragically, 1677 ADF members have suicided between 1997 and 2021; more than 20 times the number killed in active duty over roughly the same period.
Sixty-nine ADF members, including 56 veterans, died by suicide in 2021, the most recent data set.
“When I started unravelling, I had no idea what was going on,” Healey said.
What he did know was, back in Australia and away from the battlefield, there was a burning anger simmering away inside him, all the time.
Healey also noticed he remained “extremely hyper-vigilant” long after he’d returned from Afghanistan, where he’d been part of the Australia-US co-ordinated kill and capture program, hunting for Taliban insurgents and breaking up deadly IED networks.
“Like no matter where we went, I would clear the room, check the exit, check for threats, always sit with my back to the wall. It was just ingrained,” Healey said.
One day he was eating in a Sydney noodle bar with workmates in a new corporate job he’d landed when a car backfired.
“I spun around and covered one of the people I worked with, instinctively. To them, you’re jumpy. To me, it’s just my reaction,” he said.
“I just found that I was comfortable in war. But when there’s no war, and there’s no chaos, your body still is operating in that way.
“So sometimes you look to pick fights, because you’re looking for the enemy. Everyone’s out to get you. An innocent email you can interpret as having some f—— bad meaning to it.”
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Not only that but Healey’s combat-weary body was broken.
He’d wake up in the night suffering from excruciating “12 out of 10” levels of pain.
The lack of sleep simply heaped more pressure on him.
“So your body’s breaking down, which affects your mental health and then your mental health is breaking down. It’s like the situation is on steroids.
“And then it feels like I’m no longer an asset, I’m a liability. I’m hurting everyone around me.
“Life for everyone would just be better if I’m not in it. And that’s the point that veterans get to.”
Healey lost his marriage, and he hasn’t seen two of his three sons for three years.
Suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, he wound up in hospital.
That circuit-breaker, followed by deep personal work that continues today, saved his life.
Healey is now a mental health advocate for veterans and he runs Pegasus Connections, a service offering alternative therapy models, such as equine-assisted psychotherapy and outdoor education to help ex-ADF members and their families.
Last Christmas Eve, Healey said he spent three hours on the phone with an ADF vet, talking him down from the lonely, precarious place he’d reached.
“It was his first Christmas that he wasn’t going to get to be with his family.”
In 2021, the federal government launched a royal commission into ADF suicides, because of the high rate of serving and ex-serving defence suicides.
Two months ago the head of the commission complained that the inquiry was being “stymied and stonewalled along the way”, and he criticised the government and defence for moving at a “snail’s pace” in what is a “national crisis”.
Healey said the latest suicide statistics underline that every day is crucial, with many ADF veterans prone to sliding towards despair, unless they get help.
“They’ve lost their kids. They’ve lost their marriage. They’ve lost their families,” he said.
“They’ve lost their identity. They’ve lost their tribe and they’re like ‘I’m just gonna tap out.'”
If this article has affected you, help is available:
Defence Member and Family Helpline: 1800 628 036
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
ADF Mental Health all-hours support: 1800 628 036
1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732 – 24-hour counselling service for sexual assault, family and domestic violence
Men’s Referral Service – 1300 766 491 (for men concerned about their own use of violence, or abuse)
Open Arms: 1800 624 608 (free and confidential, 24/7 national counselling service for Australian veterans and their families, provided through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs)