Can 2.5 hectares of new War Memorial space filled with retired military kit help with healing? From the Honest History vault

When Dr Brendan Nelson was Director of the Australian War Memorial he often claimed that the Memorial could provide a ‘therapeutic milieu’ for former service men and women. More recently, spruikers for the $498m redevelopment have talked about the Memorial as a place of healing.

In February 2020, Honest History published an article, ‘Evidence-based interventions for PTSD related to military service: what is the role of the Australian War Memorial?‘ by retired GP Charlotte Palmer (with experience in helping patients with mental health issues) and David Stephens. The article examined closely the literature on whether and how war memorials can heal people suffering from the mental, moral and other injuries occasioned by military service. It has links to many relevant references.

The article concluded thus:

PTSD and Moral Injury are complex and profoundly disruptive to the lives of sufferers and their families. They present considerable therapeutic challenges to clinicians and there is still a vast deficit of clinical care in the Australian veteran community. Any well-founded therapeutic input is welcome, but glib and selective accounts or affecting anecdotes from individuals – like those found in the Memorial’s promotional material – are insufficient to justify the claim that an expanded Memorial, replete with retired military machinery, will provide a therapeutic milieu. (More promotional material from the Memorial.)

Anecdote by itself is not evidence, certainly not the sort of evidence that is required when the $498 million budgeted for the expansion could instead be spent directly on evidence-based mental health and suicide prevention interventions in the veteran population. The current campaign for a Royal Commission into veterans’ suicide – and the government’s proposal to establish a post of National Commissioner – have highlighted these issues yet again and should bring into sharp focus both our spending priorities and the comparative medical and social benefits deriving from expenditure.

The Royal Commission is now under way and Honest History will send a link to the Palmer-Stephens article as a submission to assist the Royal Commission’s work.

David Stephens

10 December 2021

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