The NHS is investing £150,000 over the next three years in a project to support people who have left or are leaving the armed forces.
There are 130,000 ex-service personnel in Kent and Medway and while evidence suggests they suffer no more mental illness than the general population, they often do not seek help because of the stigma around mental health experienced in the military.
Veterans aged 24 and under are two to three times as likely compared to non-veterans to commit suicide. This age group in particular can find it hard to ask for help when they rejoin civilian life.
Ex-military personnel have higher rates of alcohol misuse than the general population. Alcohol may be used as a coping strategy for mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. The Kent and Medway Veterans Needs Assessment found a 16 per cent rate of alcohol misuse among ex-service personnel compared to six per cent in the general population.
The Ex-Military Personnel Mental Health Project will help ex-service personnel find the mental health care they need to help them adjust to civilian life.
Lauretta Kavanagh, lead commissioner for mental health for NHS Kent and Medway said: “Many military personnel have experienced the horror of the battlefield during their careers. When they leave the army, they can feel alone, find employment difficult and might relive some of their experiences which further isolates them from their friends and family. They might turn to alcohol to help them cope and mask mental health problems.
“We recognise the need for mental health support for ex-service personnel and their families, which is why we have announced this investment. The need for help will rise following the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the 20,000 redundancies planned in the defence review, of which a significant number will be in Kent and Medway.”
Dr Andrew Walton, mental health lead for Thanet Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We welcome the investment to help veterans find the mental health support they need to integrate back into civilian life. The project will increase awareness among GPs and mental health professionals about the particular difficulties veterans face.”
The project will educate mental health professionals in the military way of thinking, culture and language so they understand what ex-armed services personnel might have experienced and the problems they may face adjusting when they leave the military. This will help professionals adapt their talking therapy support so that they respond in a way which helps ex-service personnel best.
The project will identify and train "veterans mental health champions" in various organisations. In addition, expert supervision in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will be made available for therapists interested in working with ex-service personnel. These evidence-based therapies are effective in treating complex and multiple emotional trauma.
Also, a Veterans Mental Health Network of professionals across all agencies in Kent and Medway is being developed to promote greater collaboration between agencies and better signposting to the most appropriate services for ex-service personnel when they make contact with any health, social care or charity sector agencies.
Phil from Faversham
Phil, who is in his late forties and from Faversham, served in the British Army for 23 years. During his career he completed six tours of Northern Ireland, as well as tours of Iraq, Bosnia and Kuwait.
He was a Colour Sergeant based in Salisbury when his army colour service came to an end in 2005. He said: “The first 15 months at home was very difficult, as I’d only returned home to Kent for my leave a few times a year.
“When I first got out, I felt under my wife’s feet, and found very quickly that I wasn’t sure about being home full time. I found myself getting aggravated, angry and upset about the smallest things. I didn’t know at the time, but overcoming this was going to be my biggest challenge of my civilian life.”
Phil, who is married with two sons, went through a difficult period with bad dreams, the loss of his army family and friends and being unsuccessful at getting work. This made him feel very low, unappreciated and angry.
At the time he didn’t realise why he was feeling the way he was and didn’t have the confidence to speak out and ask for help. He said: “I ended up having a breakdown in 2006 when I felt I had no choice but to say goodbye to life. Thankfully, on that day, my wife came home early and it all came pouring out of me. I realised I needed help.”
While Phil had received help from the army with job seeking skills, he felt unprepared for the difficulties he faced. He said: “As you are leaving the army, you don’t get the opportunity to talk in confidence to someone about what you’ve suffered or what you went through. There is no guidance on the warning signs to look out for or where you or your family can turn if you are struggling.”
Phil didn’t realise that he would struggle with his emotions or indeed his new civilian life. He said: “I spent 23 years as a frontline soldier, a fighting machine who would live or die for my colleagues. I’ve seen people blown up, shot at, lose limbs, die or injured in accidents. My body and mind went through all that but it was a part of life. You’d patch people up and go back out there, but it does catch up with you in the end. It would have helped me and my family to know that.”
There is a real difficulty for those working within the armed services to ask for help. Phil explained: “People in the military do not say if they are unable to cope because it can hold you back in your promotion or prevent you doing certain jobs. People hold it within themselves.
“The sad thing is that you can get stigmatised for what you go through on the battlefield even when you become a civilian. My difficulties are a very small part of me and I am honest about them, but I worry it might put people off giving me a job or role.”
Phil began to improve after he saw a private counsellor who made him feel comfortable enough to talk. He said: “I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the biggest thing I have to live with is a decision I made on a tour of Northern Ireland.
“One of my patrol was blown up and lost both legs. He wasn’t supposed to be where he was but the patrol hadn’t been getting on, so I moved people around. It was my decision to move him and he suffered serious injuries because of it. The sad and honest truth is that it could have been anyone on the patrol. I was the only one without an injury.”
While Phil’s difficult episodes have reduced, he has found a way of coping that works for him. He said: “I cope with my anger through physical expression. I need to feel I am breaking things. Rather than destroy objects, I have a teddy bear that I pull apart. It makes me feel instantly relaxed. The last uncomfortable period happened in 2011.”
After getting a certificate in education during his last posting, Phil came out of the army with transferable skills and is a project manager for a large organisation locally.
He welcomes the new project to help people like him, particularly in training counselors what to expect when they talk to ex-serviceman.
He said: “I would tell other ex-service personnel that the road to recovery is about ‘acceptance’. Accepting you have a problem is just a small hurdle, accepting help and support is the biggest challenge of all.
“Once you’ve accepted that you may have a problem, then you can start to talk about it and find a way of coping that works best for you.”
Now Phil sees his difficulties as a personal challenge that will not get in his way in providing for his family and living his life to the full.