It’s a common story. You proudly served your nation. You were trained from the beginning to be self-reliant and highly capable. All that time in uniform was much more than just a job – it was a way of life.
So why is returning to civilian life a challenge for so many veterans?
Transitioning to civilian life
How would you feel if you’d been in the same line of work for 20 years and then one day started doing something completely different?
Almost anyone would consider moving into a completely new job to be a daunting prospect – so it’s hardly surprising that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs acknowledges that transitioning to civilian life can be difficult for some Australian Defence Force (ADF) members.
The pace of civilian life can seem very different. Where military life was highly regimented, civilian life can seem chaotic and uncertain.
Some of the most common reasons for ADF personnel finding it hard to adjust include (but are not limited to) the following.
Lack of certainty
Food, accommodation, medical needs, a steady salary and many more of your needs were generally taken care of in a highly regimented and structured environment. When you’re back to civilian life, these things can become less certain. Suddenly, there’s pressure coming from all sides, and you have to make a range of decisions that you weren’t accustomed to.
Mental health issues
Relatively high rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, PTSD, alcohol and substance abuse have been identified as issued among veterans, along with a higher suicide rate than the general population.
Undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues can affect your ability to smoothly reintegrate back into civilian life, and the longer you ignore it, the worse it gets.
The camaraderie is gone
There is a unique bond among veterans and their comrades. It’s possible that you feel isolated or disconnected because the people you turned to previously are not around in civilian life.
Readjusting to parenting and family life
You may have been away or not spent much time over a prolonged period with your partner, spouse or children. Perhaps you missed birthdays, first days at school, anniversaries or other important life events? ADF members and their families can find these long ‘gaps’ difficult, so expect a readjustment period when you’re back at home full time.
Employers not recognising your skills
So many of the skills gained in the armed forces are highly transferrable, but many civilians may not recognise that. Some ADF members may find it hard to translate or ‘sell’ their skills (like managing people, leadership and planning) in civilian life.
Feelings of resentment
Some members may harbour feelings of anger and resentment if they left prematurely due to injury or against their will. Some veterans have even been known to hide or conceal the real reason for their departure. Constantly carrying around these feelings and not being able to ‘let go’ can lead to difficulties as a civilian.
You get taught many skills in the armed forces. Financial skills are generally not a priority (although programs do exist) in conflict zones. Now that you’re a ‘civvie’ it might be that your income is uncertain or your wage is lower, resulting in financial stress.
Not knowing what to do with yourself
The lack of excitement can come across as monotony to some veterans. Boredom, loneliness, or feeling that you don’t quite fit in could make you feel more isolated.
So what can you do?
Stay in touch
Keep in touch with other people who have or are experiencing the same changes as you. You don’t have to dive into the deep end and describe conflict or trauma. What matters is that you’re in contact with people who understand what it’s like.
Despite the fact that many of the skills gained while serving are highly transferable to the civilian sector, veterans still experience a higher job rejection rate. You can make an employer see that a veteran is an employee who is disciplined, reliable and motivated. Services are available including resume and interview tips.
Set a routine
For years, everything you did followed a regimented routine. Civilian life can seem unstructured, so setting your own routine can help restore a sense of balance and order.
A good routine might involve fitness, family life or other social activities. Try to find fellow veterans interested in the same things. Like you, they will be more open to routine-driven activities.
Reach out when you need to
Talking up is not a sign of weakness. There are many services you can access to get specialist help and support. They can assist you to back on track and help you happily transition to civilian life.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.