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National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention

Media Release

The Australian Government is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr Bernadette Boss CSC as the new interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. 

Dr Boss holds a PhD from the University of Sydney and has practiced as a barrister in Australia and the United Kingdom, primarily in the areas of family law, criminal law, administrative law and human rights law.

Since 2012, she has served as a Magistrate and Coroner of the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court and has also served in various command and staff roles in the ADF where she was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross.

“Dr Boss’ significant experience as both a Magistrate and Coroner, coupled with her understanding of human rights issues and experience in the Australian Defence Force, make her well placed to engage with the families, friends and communities affected by the loss of a loved one,” Attorney-General Christian Porter said.

“Her office will be truly independent and deliver genuine transparency as it helps to uncover the root causes and contributing factors in ADF member and veteran deaths by suicide.”

Subject to passage of legislation currently before the Parliament, Dr Boss’ role will be formalised as the National Commissioner with powers broadly equivalent to a Royal Commission to:

  • inquire into the circumstances of past and future ADF member and veteran deaths by suicide, including suspected deaths by suicide
  • hear about the impact of ADF member and veteran deaths by suicide on families and others who are affected
  • make findings and recommendations to the Australian Government; and
  • promote the understanding of suicide risks for ADF members and veterans, and factors that can improve the wellbeing of ADF members and veterans.

Like a Royal Commission the National Commissioner will be independent from Government.  Unlike a Royal Commission, however, the National Commissioner will be an enduring institution, so it can continue to monitor and report on the implementation of its recommendations in the future. 

Dr Boss said it is an honour to be tasked with addressing this important issue which is disproportionately impacting Australia’s defence and veteran community.

“I know many families, serving and ex-serving ADF members and others who have been calling for action in response to these tragic deaths. I want to hear their stories,” Dr Boss said.

The Government has also announced the Terms of Reference for the Independent Review of Past Defence and Veteran Suicides which Dr Boss will commence upon appointment.  Details of the Terms of Reference are attached.

The National Commissioner’s work forms part of the wider mental health agenda, complementing the work being undertaken by Christine Morgan as the Prime Minister’s National Suicide Prevention Advisor.

The Attorney-General congratulated Dr Boss on her appointment.

For more information about the important work of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, please visit https://www.nationalcommissionerdvsp.gov.au/.

If you, or someone you know, need support, you can contact:

  • Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
  • Open Arms (current and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel and their families are able to seek this free and confidential support) – 1800 011 046
  • ADF Mental Health All-hours Support Line (for current serving Australian Defence Force personnel and their families) on 1800 628 036.

Authorised by Christian Porter, Liberal Party of Australia, Parliament House, Canberra

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Terms of Reference

Independent Review of Past Defence and Veteran Suicides

September 2020

The death by suicide of any Australian Defence Force (ADF) member or veteran is tragic for the family and the wider Australian community. Taking action to help prevent these suicides is a priority for the Australian Government. There have been more than 400 suicides by ADF members and veterans who have served since 2001. Ex-serving men and women are particularly at risk, with the rate of suicide being much higher than in the broader Australian population.[1]

The Australian Government is establishing a new independent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention (the National Commissioner) to inquire into deaths by suicide of ADF members and veterans.

As a first priority, the National Commissioner will undertake an Independent Review of Past ADF and Veteran Suicides (the Review). It is important to look back, to learn from the past, and improve our understanding of the factors that have contributed to these deaths by suicide. These insights will help inform recommendations to Government to help prevent further deaths.

So that the Review can commence as quickly as possible, it will initially be overseen by an Interim National Commissioner.

The Review will predominantly focus on deaths by suicide among ADF members and veterans who have had one day or more of service since 1 January 2001, where the death occurred between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2018, as this is the period for which the most comprehensive and robust data and information is available. However, the National Commissioner will be able to include other cases as they consider appropriate.[2] 

Objectives of the Review

The objectives of the Review are to:

  1. Identify and understand the risk and protective factors relevant to past deaths by suicide among ADF members and veterans;
  2. Provide affected families the opportunity to share their stories, provide insights, and speak to the impact of the loss of their loved ones;
  3. Make recommendations to Government to inform more tailored and effective strategies for suicide prevention among ADF members and veterans; and
  4. Provide a foundation for the future work of the National Commissioner. 

Conduct of the Review

In undertaking the Review, the wellbeing of families will be of paramount importance. Families will be invited to participate, on a voluntary basis, to share their views and experiences to inform the Review. Engagement with families will be in accordance with a trauma-informed and restorative approach, and be culturally appropriate. Families will be assisted to access counselling services to support them to participate in the Review. Where appropriate, families providing evidence to, or appearing at, any hearing the National Commissioner may decide to hold to inform the Review, will receive access to legal assistance to support their participation in the process.

The Review will:

  1. Analyse available data and information to identify trends, systemic issues, and common risk and protective factors, including consideration of social and cultural factors;
  2. Consider the possible contribution of pre-service, service, transition, and post-service issues;
  3. Examine available research and data relating to suicidal ideation and incidence of suicide attempts and self-harm among ADF members and veterans; and
  4. Take account of the findings and recommendations of previous relevant reports and inquiries.

The National Commissioner will consult widely with relevant stakeholders and experts, including but not limited to the Prime Minister’s National Suicide Prevention Adviser, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health, the Department of Defence, the Inspector‑General of the Australian Defence Force, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (including Open Arms and the Veteran Family Advocate).

The National Commissioner will be supported by expert technical assistance from the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC) and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Necessary ethics approvals will be obtained in accordance with national principles and standards set by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Powers of the National Commissioner

Subject to the passage of legislation, in conducting the Review the National Commissioner will be able to exercise Royal Commission-like powers to:

  1. Make broad-ranging inquiries relevant to these terms of reference and hear from any relevant party (including ADF members, veterans, and their families)
  2. Receive submissions
  3. Compel the production of evidence
  4. Summon witnesses
  5. Convene public and private hearings; and
  6. Make findings and recommendations.

The National Commissioner will be independent from Government, and will make any recommendations they consider appropriate, including recommendations about policy, legislative, administrative or structural reforms to support suicide prevention efforts and improve the wellbeing of ADF members and veterans. In conducting the Review, if the National Commissioner identifies any matter that requires referral to an authority for further investigation (for example a criminal matter), such referral will be facilitated.

Timeframes and deliverables

The National Commissioner will provide the following, which will be tabled by the Australian Government in Parliament:

  • An Interim Report to Government within 12 months of commencing the Review; and
  • A Final Report, with recommendations to Government, within 18 months.

The Australian Government will table a formal response in Parliament to the National Commissioner’s Final Report. The National Commissioner will monitor the implementation of recommendations made, as part of the National Commissioner’s ongoing role.

 

[1] The age-adjusted rate of suicide over the period 2001-2017 was 18% higher for ex-serving men than men in the broader Australian population, and 115% times higher among ex-serving women compared to women in the broader Australian population. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019) National suicide monitoring of serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel: 2019 update. AIHW Website   

[2] This may include older or more recent cases, or suspected deaths by suicide.