A community shrouded in pride and camaraderie, leaving the ArmedForces poses its own challenges in many areas. No more so than mentally. However, with reports that the government is failing veterans struggling with their mental health: what is being done to support our troops?
Across the UK there are 4.8 million veterans, each with their own experiences of serving in the Armed Forces. For some, they may be living with the aftermath of seeing active duty and have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental illness.
These are the veterans in desperate need of mental health support.
Even so, new research reveals that the UK Government spend less than £10 million annually of the £150 billion UK health budget on veteran specific mental health services.
This marginalisation in spending impacts the service men and women who need it the most.
Tom Fox is one of those veterans.
“From 1990, in one form or another, I have been in uniform,” says Tom. He proudly served as an infantry soldier in the Royal Green Jackets, then in the reserve forces before working in the private security sector for the American Government in Iraq and other theatres.
Tom has a wealth of military experience on his CV.
But, behind closed doors, Tom was struggling with his mental health whilst he was serving.
“I certainly didn’t feel I could talk to anyone about my feelings; certainly not to the guys I worked with,” remembers Tom. “
“There was a period of time in the Armed Forces where I really needed some sort of signposting to make me understand that a) it was OK to talk about things, and b) there was someone there that I could have spoken to.
“I thought my only outlet – which is what a lot of guys do when things get too much – I turned to alcohol.”
It is not a tale that is uncommon for many ex-Forces personnel. Tom adds: “Back when I was serving, mental health wasn’t spoken about. It was something that needed to be dealt with privately. I felt a little embarrassed about how I was feeling.”
This stigma still holds people back from seeking assistance. According to Help for Heroes, veterans can wait up to three years and nine months before getting mental health support.
On his return to the UK in 2007, Tom forged a successful career in the financial service sector, but around five years into his new civilian life Tom’s mental health symptoms began to manifest into physical symptoms.
Soon, Tom was admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack – which turned out to be a massive panic attack.
This is one symptom that can occur through complex PTSD, which is common amongst people who have experienced trauma for a prolonged period of time.
However, when Tom felt ready to communicate he found it challenging to get NHS assistance.
An issue that is being faced by many veterans. Unfortunately, for some ex-Forces personnel their experiences and symptoms may be too complex to support in a general medical setting – resulting in longer periods before diagnosis.
“I know if a medical professional had asked me about my background in reference to my symptoms, they may have pinpointed why I was experiencing symptoms and told me my symptoms related back to PTSD. I could have got help years ago, but that just didn’t happen – it’s a failing in the medical system,” says Tom.
For veterans with complex PTSD some areas of the NHS are not well equipped to help. This is where calls for more funding have been made.
Sue Freeth, chief executive of Combat Stress, explains: “The current government and NHS is really keen to mainstream support for veterans. We welcome that because the more support there is for people then the better.”
After being referred to Combat Stress – the UK’s leading charity for veteran mental health – Tom got the help, support, and guidance he so deserved and needed.
“Veterans who turn to Combat Stress have chronic and complex needs and they have turned to the NHS but not found the resources or CBT available to them,” continues Sue.
And Tom agrees: “I don’t think the NHS is geared up to manage or support veteran mental health. The NHS is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t have enough professionals with the experience of working with complex mental health issues.”
For veterans who do connect with Combat Stress, one of the unique, and vital, services available is connecting with people who have the same experiences.
“All the veterans have experienced trauma, made a recovery, and are now helping other veterans to get treatment or, when they finish treatment, helping them translate that back at home,” explains Sue when asked about the peer to peer support available.
Connecting with former servicemen and women, veterans, like Tom or yourself, can feel solace in the confidential, supportive environment of discussing your feelings with others you can relate with.
This is something that is not yet available on the NHS. It is evident that more than £10 million of the current health budget should be used to support veteran mental health.
Connecting with veterans in the peer to peer environment is invaluable.
“The more beneficial we make treatment, the more veterans will come forward,” concludes Sue.
For veterans experiencing the grips of mental illness, Tom fervently advises: “Reach out to your buddies from service or a family member.
“Sometimes it’s not easy to speak to people, there is a feeling of lack of self-worth where you can’t seem to cope anymore. People can feel low, but understand that people do care about you. The worst thing you can do is hold it in.”
And there is help available regardless of your current situation.