What is social connectedness?

Social connectedness refers to the feeling of belonging and connection to others. It includes a wide array of social aspects in a person's life, including how frequently they see other people, how supported they feel by the people around them, and whether they participate in their community. Social connectedness is a key determinant of wellbeing and is described within both the AIHW's Veteran-centred model and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) Wellbeing model (DVA 2023). For more information, see Development of a veteran-centred model: a working paper.

Social connectedness among veterans

Due to the unique nature of military service, veterans can experience both protection from, and vulnerability to, issues with social connectedness.

For example, many veterans feel a strong sense of camaraderie, trust and mateship during deployment, which can protect against social isolation and loneliness during military service (Reijen and Duel 2019).

Following re-entry to civilian life however, issues with social connectedness may arise among certain vulnerable subgroups of veterans. Most notably, international research suggests that particular groups of ex-serving veterans may be at greater risk of loneliness, such as those who live alone, are single parents, are unemployed, are in financial stress, have disability in activities of daily living, were exposed to trauma, and who experienced stress (Kuwert et al. 2013; Na et al. 2022; Reijen and Duel 2019). This may be further exacerbated by the increased risk of certain mental health issues amongst ex-serving ADF members (AIHW 2023), which is closely associated with social isolation and loneliness (McGuire et al. 2023; Teo et al. 2018).

However, several factors also exist that can protect veterans against social isolation and loneliness following their transition to civilian life, which in turn may improve their health and wellbeing outcomes. For example, recent research has revealed that active membership to veteran-specific organisations may help protect ex-serving veterans against social isolation and loneliness, and that ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) members who feel connected with their former military peers have improved mental health outcomes (Kreminski et al, Russell and Russell 2018). International research suggests that feeling part of a local community and engaging in volunteering may also protect veterans from social isolation and loneliness during their transition to civilian life (Pickering and Lam 2020; Matthieu et al. 2017). Individual characteristics such as being married or partnered, having higher income, and having good social support are also linked to improved social connectedness amongst veterans internationally (Kuwert et al. 2013; Straus et al. 2021).

What is the purpose of this report?

Understanding the social connectedness of veterans is important in protecting Australia’s veteran population against poor health and wellbeing outcomes, and in particular suicide once they separate from the ADF (NMHC 2017). Although international studies have explored both the risk and protective factors for social connectedness among veterans, more comprehensive research is needed to validate the effects of these factors on rates of social isolation, loneliness and community participation among Australia’s veterans.

In one of the first studies of its kind within Australia, this report uses the Household Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) Wave 21 data set to examine the social connectedness of Australians who had ever served in the ADF. More specifically, this report aims to explore how veteran social isolation, loneliness, volunteering, membership to clubs or associations, feeling part of a local community, and frequency of social contact may differ by various individual characteristics such as employment and health status, as well as how these may differ to Australians who have never served in the ADF. 

This report will help facilitate the identification of potential risk and protective factors for poor social connectedness among Australia’s veteran population, as well as improve the current knowledge base of both the AIHW’s Social Support domain of its Veteran-Centred model, and DVA’s Social support and connection domain of its Wellbeing model.

What data was used in this report?

This report analyses data from the HILDA Survey. This is a nationally representative longitudinal study of Australian households, and collects valuable information about Australian labour market dynamics, family life, economic, and personal wellbeing (Melbourne Institute). The HILDA Survey is the only study of its kind in Australia, following the lives of more than 17,000 Australians each year.

HILDA data are collected from respondents in annual “Waves”, primarily through face-to-face interviews. Data have been collected since 2001 (Wave 1), and the most recent published data (Wave 21) were collected between July 2021 and March 2022 (Watson, Nesa and Summerfield 2022). This report analyses Wave 21 data, which includes new ADF service questions asking respondents whether they had ever served in the ADF, whether they were current service or ex-serving, and whether they served in the permanent service, reserves, or both.

The HILDA survey may use different sampling technique and definitions from other previously published data sources, and so may provide different estimates for the health and wellbeing outcomes of Australia’s veterans. As such, definitions and findings presented in this report should not be compared to those of other publications.

For more information, see About the HILDA survey.

Who was included in the analysis for this report?

In this report, the term “veteran” is used to describe any person who has ever served in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). This is irrespective of whether they are currently serving, or have left the ADF.

To identify veterans in this report and enable comparisons to the broader Australian population, survey respondents in Wave 21 of the HILDA data set were separated into two groups for analysis using self-reported characteristics about their ADF service history:

Population group 1 – Had ever served in the ADF

This group includes people who:

  • self-reported they were aged 18 years or over, and
  • answered, ‘Yes’ when asked ‘Have you ever served in the Australian Defence Force?’

This group may include permanent, reservist, and/or ex-serving ADF members. Only 650 people were identified as veterans in Wave 21, forming a small proportion of the overall Wave 21 HILDA sample.

Population group 2 – Had never served in the ADF

This group includes people who:

  • self-reported they were aged 18 years or over, and
  • answered ‘No’ when asked ‘Have you ever served in the Australian Defence Force?’

This group may include dependants and spouses of serving and ex-serving ADF members, as well as the broader Australian population.

Throughout this report, comparisons are also made between different subgroups of veterans to assist in identifying potential risk and protective factors for poor social connectedness. For example, rates of loneliness may be compared between veterans with or without disability, or between veterans who lived alone versus in other family structures. 

What veteran subgroups did we explore?

In addition to reporting overall rates of various measures of social connectedness among veterans, this web report disaggregates the veteran population further by individual characteristics to identify subgroups who may be at increased or decreased risk of poor social connectedness.

Overall, 15 subgroups of veterans were explored in the analysis for this report:

  • defence workforce type
  • whether current or ex-serving
  • DVA client status
  • sex
  • age
  • labour force status
  • financial stress
  • remoteness area
  • state or territory of residence
  • general health status
  • mental health status
  • psychological distress
  • disability status
  • disability severity
  • family type

However, some subgroups were omitted from commentary in instances where numbers were too small to publish, or where the quality of the data caused results to be too unreliable for inclusion in this report.

For more information on why each subgroup was selected for analysis in this report, see More information on risk and protective factors explored in this report.