Accessibility to support ‘a big issue’ for ADF personnel, says former chaplain

Si Gladman / 24 April 2021

Collin Acton’s proposal for a new secular wellbeing support capability in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) would break down the barriers to service personnel accessing the support they need when they need it.

The former Navy chaplain, who retired last year as Navy’s Director General of Chaplaincy and Principal Chaplain, has told the Rationalist Society of Australia that the ADF’s current religious-based chaplaincy model is failing to meet the needs of its increasingly non-religious workforce.

Currently, non-religious service personnel – who make up an increasing majority of the armed forces – have little choice when they want to seek help.

“Religious chaplains have maintained the status quo by perpetuating a half-truth. They assert that ADF members can access secular support through Defence social workers and psychologists. But accessibility to that support is a big issue,” said Retired Principal Chaplain Acton.

The ADF provides 140 full-time and 100 part-time religious chaplains through the chaplaincy branches of the Army, Air Force and Navy.

While 40 Defence social workers, plus counselling and psychology services, are available, Retired Principal Chaplain Acton said long delays to accessing them or a reluctance to ‘medicalise issues’ put up barriers to service personnel getting timely support.

“Chaplains are accessible anytime due to the sheer weight of numbers and their presence in ships and units,” he said. 

“Defence members and their families have access to a social worker. However, it’s a process that may take several days and contingent on the availability of the 40 Defence social workers who are spread around Australia in Defence Community Organisations offices. 

“Additionally, ADF personnel and their families have access to Open Arms Counselling, which is a free, confidential counselling service. However, there are often significant wait times, usually weeks long, in accessing this service.” 

Retired Principal Chaplain Acton wants to see a new secular wellbeing support model providing professionally qualified social workers, counsellors and other human service professionals employed in a chaplaincy-like role alongside Army, Air Force and Navy personnel.

To be effective, he said such professionals needed to be working alongside personnel on a daily basis.

“The role of a chaplain is utterly unique and very different to that of a psychologist or social worker. Chaplains wear the same uniform, work alongside Defence personnel in units and ships, deploy with them and generally share the same conditions of service as those they care for,” he said.

“Defence Community Organisation social workers do a fantastic job. However, military personnel may regard them as civilians who do not have the same lived experience as the workforce they serve.

“The model I am proposing would be similar to and complementary to what religious chaplains currently deliver. ADF members have a fundamental right to be given the choice of a non-religious option when seeking chaplaincy support.”

Interested to find out more about religious discrimination in government-funded chaplaincy programs in schools, in hospitals and in the military? Register here for our webinar, being held on Wednesday 28 April 2021, with Associate Professor Luke Beck of Monash University as the guest speaker.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Photo by Commonwealth of Australia

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