ML Blog

I was GASLIT.

I was Gaslit.

By Beck Rayner

Trigger Warning: Gaslighting is a very sensitive topic to discuss for many and for some it can trigger intense emotions and thoughts. If you or anyone you know need mental health support, call FREE Veterans and Families counselling service Open Arms on 1800 011 046, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or text 0477 131 114, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or in an emergency 000.
*What is Gaslighting? Behaviours that can be used to undermine someone’s sense of self, sense of reality, and sense of confidence in their own perceptions of a situation and of a relationship, can cause a person to question their judgment, memory, self-worth, and overall mental health.

 

 

I’ve been trying to write this for a while now but to be honest, I’ve just felt so let down for myself and this community that I just couldn’t find the right words, which, for me, isn’t usual.⁠


So here goes….⁠


Six months ago, I asked questions following an announcement of the “Enhancement and Expansion” of the Defence School Mentor Program and this is what happened.⁠

I was told I was focusing too much on the details.⁠

I was told there were bigger issues.⁠

I was told that maybe I should seek mental health support if I had been triggered.⁠

 


I was GASLIT.⁠


This is the story of what happened when I asked questions and the deeper problems that, I feel, exist within the defence and veteran community when it comes to accessing information, openly voicing concerns or giving feedback.⁠

 

 

Listen to ep141 of the Military Life Podcast to hear the rest of the story or read on below

 

But how did it go from asking questions to being gaslit?

 

In April, it was announced the Defence School Mentor Program (details below) would be enhanced and expanded to include the kids of veterans who had transitioned out of Defence.

This was welcome news.

Previously, Defence School Mentors were tasked with providing official support for veteran kids for a period of ONLY TWO years after the ADF Member had transitioned out of Defence.

So naturally, when I saw the announcement that this support had been extended, I had questions.

You see, I’m all about the details. I guess that’s the Journalist in me. The real story is always in the details and I wanted to provide the defence & veteran community with those details because expanding the DSM program from including veteran kids for only TWO years to now being until they leave a school (details below) was a good thing.

This announcement was a good thing.

I know from my lived experience and connection with my own daughters’ DSM and from the feedback from the Military Life Community, that the depth and breadth of support DSMs provide is vital and needed and that veteran kids having extended access to that support is a positive step.

But like a lot of support avenues within the defence space, I and many feel that some DSMs are already stretched providing vital support to the kids of current serving members. That’s why I had questions about whether this enhancement & expansion and, consequently the DSMs would be properly funded and supported to meet the needs of this expansion.

 

So, what happened when I asked questions?

 

This is the story of what happened when I asked questions and the deeper problems that, I feel, exist within the defence and veteran community when it comes to accessing information, openly voicing concerns or giving feedback.

I started by asking for the details from the original organisation that announced the update about the DSM program.

I asked, “Does this mean funding has been expanded and DSMs will be funded for more hours to accommodate supporting children of ex-serving?”

I was told that the finer details were still being worked out but that I could contact DMFS (Defence Member and Family Support), the program’s owner.

I wondered how the enhancement and expansion of a program could be announced when the finer details hadn’t been confirmed but I would soon learn that I was getting ahead of myself because little did I know it would take me another four months, yes FOUR MONTHS, to finally get the details for something that had already been announced publicly.

I contacted DMFS but didn’t hear back (due to absent staff) so then I emailed former Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs Minister Andrew Gee’s office for the official press release because surely if a program had been enhanced and expanded the Minister’s office would know. I was directed back to the organisation that originally announced the enhancement and expansion of the DSM program.

At this point, I was going around in circles.

 

What did this “Enhancement and Expansion” actually mean?

 

Here we had a public announcement for the defence and veteran community to applaud and praise yet no one had any details. I had been on this detail-finding mission for a couple of weeks and my Journo instincts were growing stronger. I was in this for the long haul.

At University we were taught to “follow the money” maybe that’s why this was proving so challenging…. plot twist there wasn’t any money but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

At this point, I thought it best to bring all contacted parties together (via email) to see if we could finally figure out, between us, who had the top-secret details. I was still optimistic that maybe it had all been a misunderstanding. That the details were hidden somewhere in a file and that surely, I wouldn’t have to put in a freedom of information request for what seemed like standard info.

 

In all seriousness, though, it was at this point that my mental health was questioned, and I was gaslit.

 

It was suggested that I may need to access mental health support. Yes, you read that right. Mental health support… for asking these questions and pushing for what I had thought were simple answers that should be freely available to the defence and veteran community. I was made to feel like there was something wrong with me. I didn’t need mental health support. I needed the details of the “Enhancement and Expansion” of the DSM Program…  which I still did not have but I promise I’ll come back to that in a minute.

 

Why do the details matter?

 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s ‘Understanding the well-being characteristics of ex-serving ADF members’ Report, there are over 60,000 children who live in a house with an ex-serving ADF member and of those 44,622 were under the age of 15.

So, for example…

Let’s assume that maybe around 10,000 of the 44,622 kids that are under 15 are school-aged and let’s also assume that those around 10,000 kids attend a school with a Defence School Mentor. That means that if those children are currently attending the school they were at when the ADF member transitioned out of defence that there are now potentially THOUSANDS of veteran kids who now, technically, come under the care and qualify to access extended support via the DSM program. That’s not taking into account that each year around 5,000 to 6,000 ADF members leave defence of which some would also add to those numbers. 

But obviously, those figures are just an example to give a little context

That’s why the details of the enhancement and expansion of the DSM program matter.

Currently, the DSM Program is available to and accessed by around 14,000 Defence kids of current serving members across 270 schools around Australia. Defence School Mentors provide one of only a few available and immediate in-person supports specific to school-aged defence kids. 

So, when it was announced that DSMs would now be extending their support and expanding their role to include thousands more veteran kids for longer potentially, it was clear that the details of the enhancement and expansion would determine what the announcement would actually mean in practical on-the-ground terms.

The apparent lack of information and my resolve to push forward with my detail-finding mission grew stronger. I was in too deep at this point and I was actually really perplexed as to why providing the details was turning into accessing the country’s best-kept secret.

You see, this announcement means that the role of DSMs and the support they offer would now essentially split into two streams;

The first stream, meeting the needs of current serving kids who commonly experience separation, transition, change, varied learning standards and environments, managing social inclusion and exclusion and more. All of the challenges that come with being a defence kid and living defence life.

And the second stream, meeting the very different needs of veteran kids who aren’t necessarily experiencing frequent moves or separation anymore but may now be working through various challenges related to the ADF members’ transition and dependent on the reason for that transition. Connection to community, a parent experiencing PTSD, loss of identity and purpose. Injury and illness, taking on the carer role of their parent and more. All of the challenges that come with no longer being a defence kid and a family finding their feet in the civilian community while sometimes dealing with heavy circumstances.

Both kids of serving members and kids of veterans have different and varied needs and both cohorts deserve the time, attention, resources and support that should be afforded to them. And the Defence School Mentors should be able to provide that to them via a funded expansion of the DSM program.

And so, what I’m getting at here is that while this enhancement and expansion is positive news, adding veteran kids to come under the care of DSMs for a longer period of time without provisions or more resourcing or an allocation of funds so that schools can access more funding and DSMs are hopefully afforded the ability to increase their hours and capacity to accommodate such an expansion, just isn’t fair. It isn’t fair for the kids or for the DSMs.

But remember, at this stage, I didn’t actually have the info about the enhancement and expansion of the program because my detail-finding mission was still underway.

 

The Questions that followed….

 

Now at this point, you might be thinking… just give it up, there are far bigger problems to focus on within the defence and veteran community because, believe me, my patience was being tested. I know there are bigger problems but bigger problems don’t take away from the fact an announcement was made that a program was being expanded, and the details of that expansion were nowhere to be seen.

With every email response I received giving me anything but the answers to my questions, my frustration grew, but so did my resolve to uncover the details.  

Then the Federal Election was called and the Government entered caretaker mode and I was advised by DMFS that there were restrictions with regard to the information that could be shared with me during the caretaker period, and you guessed it- that information included the details of the enhancement and expansion of the DSM program.

Just my luck.

So, I summoned the last of my patience and I waited and I waited for DMFS to come out of caretaker mode and find their feet under the new government and hopefully the details of the enhancement and expansion of the DSM program, but as it turned out when that long-awaited email finally arrived in my inbox in August the answer to my question “Could you provide me with the details regarding the funding component for the expansion of the DSM program” was not included.

But you know what, by this time 4 months on, the actual details had now started to trickle their way to me via the Military Life community. So instead of asking the same questions of the same people and still being left without the details, at this point, I knew my next step was to turn to Veteran Family Advocate Commissioner Gwen Cherne.

So that’s what I did. On August 16, I met with Commissioner Cherne to discuss the enhancement and expansion of the DSM program and by August 24, just 8 days later, I received the long-awaited details and was thanked for bringing the matter to her attention. 

This was a stark contrast after previously asking the same question of the original organisation and being told maybe if I had been “triggered” during my quest to get the answers to some basic questions, I should seek mental health support.

I should seek mental health support for asking questions.

But what about the details, the ones you’ve been on the edge of your seat waiting for? Well, you might have guessed where all of this has been heading…

According to Commissioner Cherne, there was, in fact, no funding for the enhancement and expansion of the DSM program, which meant there really weren’t any details.

I know, what a letdown.

Basically, DSMs would be tasked with providing on-going support for veteran kids up until the time they leave the school they were attending when the ADF member transitioned from defence. Veteran kids would NOT be included or counted in the DSMs official student numbers (the numbers that show how many students they support) and DSMs were directed to provide support for veteran kids based ONLY on their capacity.

What does that actually mean? It means that the onus to support veteran kids is placed on the individual Defence School Mentor. If the DSM doesn’t have the capacity, then they simply don’t provide support.

So really when it comes down to it, the DSM program has been enhanced and expanded to include veteran kids but the expansion is totally dependent on the capacity of the individual DSM. 

DSMs should not be faced with that choice.

From my experience, those who fill the DSM role (a large amount are defence partners) are usually the type of person who would never turn a defence or veteran kid away or deny them support because they’re at capacity. It wouldn’t matter if those kids were counted in a DSMs official numbers or not, DSMs would still step up and help them.

But you see, that’s the issue here though. When it comes down to it, DSMs are faced with the decision of honouring their capacity and turning away veteran kids or taking on an expansion of their role and responsibilities that isn’t even officially counted on-paper or recognised.

 

The Respect and Time

 

Back to my meeting with Commissioner Cherne.

There is a lot to be said for the respect and time I was afforded by Commissioner Cherne to at least provide me with the answers to the questions that I had been patiently waiting for.

Sure, it wasn’t the answer that this community or I may have wanted to hear, but I was shown compassion and understanding and appreciated the time taken to provide an upfront and honest response.

Some words From Commissioner Cherne, “Given that Defence is supposed to help families in the first two years after transition I think extending this program to support those whose families have recently transitioned is important. I also know that while programs can look great on paper, when we roll them out there are still issues and problems, like the ones you have raised with me and others this year.”

“I am heartened by the extension of this resource to families who have transitioned, but that needs to be backed up with funding and proper resourcing around transitioned veterans’ experiences and challenges.”

 

So now that I had the details what now?

 

An explanation is not a solution and an announcement that gives the illusion of support is quite frankly, not good enough.

The community, veteran kids and DSMs are still left with a program that has been enhanced and expanded without the appropriate support or increased funding and Commissioner Cherne is now tasked with advocating on this issue.

“While ‘mobility and absence no longer become factors the Defence School Mentors refer them on to the appropriate student supports within the school’ we have to ensure that the schools are equipped to support families who are impacted by things such as grief, loss, PTSD, loss of identity and purpose, injury and illness, understanding family members moving into carer roles for partners and or needing to take on carer roles of their parents, among other issues that can often take over the household when a member transitions.”

“There is much to be done. One thing I have learned over the last few years is that one way to get government open to new policies is to do it through incremental change, small steps that eventually get us where we need to go,” said Commissioner Cherne.

 

My Observations & the Background Issues we NEED to talk about

 

While all of what I have just written about is important there are a number of deeper, background issues that I have observed and I think should be highlighted.

1-      The way I was treated and why my mental health was connected with my right to be informed and access information that should be freely available to those in the community who will be impacted by related decisions.

 

2-     The defence and veteran community don’t have an independent avenue to ask questions and receive clear transparent information and there should be more opportunities to ask questions, openly discuss concerns and give feedback.

 

3-     All organisations should be continually working to create an environment and more opportunities where the defence & veteran community feel empowered to be able to bring issues to the fore or have input in a safe and supportive space.

 

4-    The solution isn’t to stop reaching out or to stop asking questions, it’s in fact the opposite- more of us, more frequently need to reach out often and consistently. Encouraging more people, more frequently to speak up and ask questions so that it is the norm not the exception.

 

5-    There needs to be more inclusion and input from the defence and veteran community in program design or expansion and more lived experience needs to be used to shape end products so that enhancements and expansions not only look good on paper but are also functional and fit for purpose from the very start.

 

6-     Progress erases Struggle- Progress leads to any other type of advocacy being seen as ungrateful. We need to change the narrative that asking questions, voicing concerns or giving feedback makes anyone in the defence & veteran community ungrateful and that even if there are bigger problems it does not mean this issue or any others don’t deserve appropriate funding, support and attention.

 

7-  If the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide and the very raw and heartfelt submissions that detail the stories and experiences of veteran families can teach us anything it’s that veteran families need more support and that support can’t be a token.   

 

8-  It doesn’t matter who this person is or the organisation this person is attached to, the deeper problem is that this behaviour exists within this space and that simply asking questions resulted in my mental health being questioned.

 

What did I learn?

 

When you speak your truth, you’re

giving others permission to speak theirs too.

 

My truth.

 

I was Gaslit and I learnt that it didn’t

extinguish the fire within me… it fueled it.

 

 

*The content of this blog is the author’s thoughts, feelings and opinions. The author acknowledges that the unnamed organisation (not named in this blog) does some really great work. It should be noted that the incident detailed in this blog is not an isolated incident.

 

*What is the Defence School Mentor Program?

The purpose of the Defence School Mentor Program is to partner with schools to support the well-being of Defence children by connecting them with their school community and enhancing school capacity to respond to the impacts of the ADF lifestyle. The program was extended to include supporting students whose parents have transitioned from the ADF for the duration of their time at the school, which could turn out to be longer than two years.

Support provided by the Defence School Mentor is aligned with the program objectives and includes providing information about available school and community supports relevant to and supporting the school to respond to the social and emotional needs of students from Defence families. Defence School Mentors do not provide explicit transition support to children or families but they continue to provide supports for the duration of the students time at that school and its been found that as the needs of the students change and mobility and absence no longer become factors the Defence School Mentors refer them on to the appropriate student supports within the school.

The role of a Defence School Mentor is to provide practical assistance to Defence families and support the social and emotional wellbeing of Defence students who experience mobility and parental absence, recognising that:

  •       Defence students may experience social and emotional wellbeing challenges at all ages.
  •       School is a key environment for Defence families – in terms of the opportunity to address these challenges through students’ social and emotional development.
  •       Frequent lifestyle changes arising from the Defence lifestyle means that Defence families value a consistent source of information and well-being support.
  •       Defence families may have difficulty navigating the school environment, as different schools have different policies and procedures.
  •       School staff may not fully understand the impacts of the Defence lifestyle on students and may require additional resources to support Defence students.

The ADF Aware, School Capability Building Program, was launched on 1 July 2022 to increase awareness and knowledge within schools re military life and how this may affect their students. ADF Aware is a tailored program which is delivered to school staff through short online training modules. The program includes 3 modules covering 3 key topics designed to support school staff in understanding the Defence lifestyle and the unique needs of students with parents or guardians in the ADF. As part of the launch of this new initiative, all Defence School Mentors were required to complete this training, and approximately 200 additional school staff have also completed the awareness training nationally, including from 35 schools that are not part of the Defence School Mentor Program.

We are closely watching the evaluation data and any feedback that is provided from the schools on these programs to see if there are any additional needs being reported for those known students of the veteran families in the first years after transition. We may be able to enhance the modules in the ADF Aware education package with specific information about the impacts of transition on children from veteran families if there is a requirement.

To read more about the DSM program visit  https://defence.gov.au/members-families/Family/kids/education.asp

Or have a listen to a previous Military Life Podcast episode (ep28) which is focused on the role of the DSM and how they support defence kids.