Mental health

The mental health of family members and the need for counselling and therapy

Risk factors

When a family is transitioning from defence, counselling for all family members individually and as a family is recommended. Children from military families have often already faced greater stress, so they often face the transition from a compromised mental health position.

Illustrating this, the 2019 Parliamentary Inquiry into Transitions from the ADF found:

'Relocations, social isolation, financial pressure in a single income household, mental health challenges, and the periodic absence of one’s partner are all challenges for those in Defence and their partners and family members. Eighty-three per cent of Defence personnel live in family households (compared to 72 per cent for the general population), and 34 per cent of those with children said that they needed family counselling. Families going through transition are more likely to experience this need' (p. 16).

An Australian study by McFarlane (2010) found '‘a multiplicity of issues’ was at the source of the trauma suffered by ADF veterans', and ‘childhood trauma is overly represented in people who join the Australian Defence Force’ (p. 59 of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Transitions from the ADF).

Individual children show their struggles differently. One might show this by acting out to get attention. Another might be internally stressing, not wanting to socialise and struggling with large groups. This does not mean that one is suffering more than the other, and within families, parents can struggle to give the same amount of attention to those who are acting out compared to those who are quietly anxious.

Some of the adult veteran children in Wells et al. (2022b) study recommended:

'I think something along the lines of civilian interaction to say what’s going to happen…maybe counselling or a bit of guidance like this is where you can go…they’ve been regimented for three, five, twenty, thirty years…you really need to put in there a support group or something like that' (p. 8).

'I understand they now have more programs in schools for defence kids and there’s more education starting about what it means when someone’s parent is in defence…but there still needs to be more transition supports for kids in civilian schools' (Wells et al., 2022b, p. 6).

Another participant from the same study talked about the burden of not having the support they needed:

'It can be especially hard for young people…having to do research on where help is available. Sometimes it’s not fair, but you have to do the hard yards yourself. Help isn’t always offered to you on a silver platter' (Wells et al., 2022b, p. 7).

Protective factors

It is important to note that many members and their family tap into the protective factors (supports that build your ability to weather stress) available in the military or within the military family community.

Some participants of the study noted the loss of support from within the military, and the consequences of transition:

'My dad has depression, anxiety and PTSD … for him, his PTSD, he believes – and I believe as well – was from leaving the Army, losing that support' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 457).

Rogers, Bhullar & Johnson (2022) reported:

'A 2022 study of almost 40,000 parents from US military families reporting on the mental health of their children found that parents of current military families reported fewer mental health problems in children compared to children of veterans. One reason for this could be that current military families tend to have stronger social support networks that act as a protective factor for children'.

Other families tap into the support of their physical or online community. This might include neighbours, civilian friends, civilian community groups and organisations, and civilian support services. Some utilise online community supports set up for civilians.

Extended family can often be a terrific source of support, and they may be more accessible after transition because families might be able to relocate to be closer to them.

Barriers to accessing support and the potential consequences of no support

The 2019 Parliamentary Inquiry into Transition from the Australian Defence Force noted:

'...the 20 per cent who experience challenges, often have difficulties across several areas of life. Evidence before the Committee indicates that the reverberations from these difficulties can stretch years into the future, and can affect spouses, children, and other members of the extended family of the transitioning ADF member' (p. 18).

Awareness of some families' challenges can help spark conversations between partners or extended family members when they are planning transitions. Learning from other families' experiences is key to being aware of the long-term consequences of not being able to get the support needed for the transition.

Many young people reported a sense of helplessness as they witnessed the reluctance of their previously serving parents to seek support and the consequent deterioration of their parents’ relationship:

'He [father] definitely struggles a lot with PTSD and stuff like that … he struggles a lot mentally … you can see it's affecting me, and my family … and has challenged all his relationships … it's been so hard to watch him struggle' (Wells et. al., 2022a, p. 456).

'My father’s inability to want to get help and the lack of support from the military to do so put a lot of strain on my parents’ relationship, which was really difficult for me to watch' (Wells et al., 2022b, p. 7).

Others noted that the stigma relating to mental health and help-seeking “needs to change” and “be talked about more” to increase young people’s receptiveness to available support:

'Knowing it’s okay to go and seek that support, if you need to. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that needs to change. There definitely needs to be changes in further education …[for] defence families' (Wells et al., 2022b, p. 7).

'So, I think that had a major impact on them leaving the Army, because they had all these issues that they could not get help for in the Army, so when they leave the Army, they do not get help for it either because there's that stigmatised culture' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 457).

Another participant from the study explained the impact of having to care for her parents:

'My mum was undiagnosed mentally ill, and she could be really awful at times with her anxiety and my dad was just a very angry man who was holding onto a lot of personal loss … he spent three years in and out of mental health hospitals when I was a teenager. But I think for me the long-lasting impact was a very strained relationship with my parents … I really resented my parents because I had to look after them' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 457).

What to avoid

The quotes below outline the challenges faced by adult children of veterans in the past:

'My mum once said to me, yeah, well the Army needs to make sure you are not mentally broken, because they are going to be the ones to break you' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 456).

'So, it is an interesting situation that I've got three other siblings as well and they all have mental health issues as well' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 457).

'In years to come it turned out that I had bipolar, but when I look back, I'd had it at a young age, but just never expressed myself to anybody' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 457).

'I was a support worker for three months, and I'm very open with my mental health now … I think it has made me more accepting of being an Air Force brat and coming into civilian life myself' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 458).

'It was like a big cork in a bottle, I suppose. The Army taught you to put that cork in and to not get emotional about things because there was no use as no one was going to care' (Wells et al., 2022a, p. 457).

It is important to note that there are supports available and that careful planning, using ESOs, and health and counselling services can alleviate many transition challenges to avoid or deal with the situations described above.


Wells, H., Heinsch, M., Brosnan, C., & Kay-Lambkin, F. (2022a). Military family dynamics in transition:
The experiences of young people when their families leave the Australian Defence Force. Child & Family Social Work, 27(3), 454–464.

Wells, H., Heinsch, M., Brosnan, C., & Kay-Lambkin, F. (2022b). Young People’s Support Needs During the Military–Civilian Transition: “I Would Have Been a Very Different Person if There was More Support Available”, Australian Social Work, DOI:10.1080/0312407X.2022.2077121

Last modified: Saturday, 8 October 2022, 3:21 PM