Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty AO testifies at Royal Commission

Australia’s defence personnel do not have access to enough professional mental health workers, the man leading the Defence department has warned, and simply throwing more money at the problem is not a viable solution.

Department of Defence secretary Greg Moriarty AO told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Tuesday the country’s widespread and severe labour shortages in professional mental health services had impacted healthcare delivery in the military and public service, despite an “intensified” focus on helping soldiers, sailors, airmen and public service workers struggling with psychological trauma.

“We do not have enough mental health professionals for the Australian community broadly,” he said.

“Certainly within the defence organisation, they are hard to recruit.”

The jarring remark exposes the deep complexity of the suicide crisis roiling the country’s defence community, which has taken the lives of 1600 servicemen and women between 1997 and 2020 – 20 times the number of service personnel killed on active duty.

“Some of these challenges cannot be addressed through simply injecting more money,” Mr Moriarty said.

“The people (mental health professionals) simply do not exist and I think that’s a nationwide challenge.”

The department established a specialist mental health and wellbeing branch in 2023 to in part address the excruciating challenge, but Mr Moriarty said it would take time and extensive research for the new body to fully understand the range and complexity of the problem and develop policies that change outcomes at the ground level.

“Without quality data, it is very hard to make those small adjustments that might just improve the quality of an intervention,” he said.

Mr Moriarty took over the department in 2017 and his tenure was renewed for another five-year term in 2022.

He is responsible for implementing the government’s grand defence vision in conjunction with Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell.

As part of that general brief, Mr Moriarty said he was responsible for maintaining a “healthy” Defence workforce.

“We cannot deliver the missions and effects the government requires of us if we do not have a healthy and capable workforce,” he said.

Erin Longbottom KC, counsel assisting the commission, pressed Mr Moriarty on whether he and the department had been slow in confronting the mental health crisis coursing through the country’s defence community, but Mr Moriarty rejected that proposition.

“The issue of suicide has been a concern of Defence over many years,” he said.

“It does go back many years but I think we have conceptualised it in terms of a broader wellness function in more recent years.”

He said the department had made some “very significant improvements” in how it treats mental health and leadership had not been “passive” in response to the challenge.

He said he was optimistic about the improvements the new mental health branch would deliver to service personnel.

“It’s on a growth path,” he said.

He acknowledged his understanding of suicide in the defence and veteran community had “broadened” during his tenure, shifting away from what he called a “simplistic and narrow” emphasis on deployments and their impact on mental health to the multiple complex factors that generate the challenge.

The commission has held multiple hearings around the country and has received some 230,000 documents, 5889 submissions and heard from 344 witnesses, drilling into the complex mental health challenge.

Earlier on Tuesday, the commission heard from Dr Karen Bird, who lost her Afghanistan veteran son Jesse to suicide in 2017.

The heartbroken mum hit out at what she called a “delay, deny, die” culture within the Australian Defence Force.

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