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Veterans’ Mental Health – A real and challenging topic

By Edward Parker, CEO, Walking With The Wounded

On Friday, I was quoted in The Times airing concern about the direction of the conversation around veterans’ mental health. As an organisation we would be the first to acknowledge that the impact on those who do suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very significant, both on the individual and their immediate family. Our intervention in the debate was not to denigrate or trivialise PTSD, but to ensure people understand that the mental health issues faced by veterans are many more, and equally complex.

King’s College London has studied in detail the proportion of veterans suffering from PTSD, and their findings showed it was similar to that of society, at between 4-6%. This figure does rise for those who served in combat arms, and for medics and reservists, but the figures remain proportionately small. The vast majority of mental ill health suffered by veterans are the rather glibly named ‘common mental health disorders’ such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder and social anxiety. There is also a higher than average prevalence for veterans to use alcohol hazardously or become alcohol dependent. And it is also vital to note that very often PTSD is not diagnosed in isolation, and individuals present multiple physical and mental symptoms, all of which require care.

The argument is complex and we feel needs to be developed. During the latest conflicts, it was relatively simple to understand the nature of physical injuries. They were visible and caused as a result of direct engagement in operations. Now that these wars are becoming more distant, the immediacy around physical injury is less urgent, though one must always recognise those with physical injury continue to face many challenges as a result and require assistance and support. Meanwhile, the number of ex-service personnel needing help is actually rising, a fact which is difficult to articulate to the donating public, particularly as this arises from a continued manifestation of mental health problems. My point in The Times is we must start being more precise and informative about the nature of these mental health issues, and not just use PTSD as the headline, a headline which is too often being sensationalised by some parties in order to grab public attention, and can lead to misunderstanding and self-diagnosis in the veteran community. It is also important to recognise mental health issues don’t just arise from operational duty, and as Libby Purvis very constructively noted in The Times today, many mental health problems faced by veterans pre-date their military service.  It is reasonable to argue the PTSD label has become  the everyday parlance by those who are not qualified to make such a diagnosis, this is likely because such a label has become a “badge of Honour” and is more palatable to the veteran than say depression or anxiety.  This highlights one of the major barriers to seeking help, the stigma that surrounds mental health which certainly exists in the civilian population and arguably extenuated in the Armed Forces.

At the heart of veterans healthcare, whether physical or mental, is the NHS, and we believe strongly this must remain the first port-of-call for any veteran needing care. The ongoing debate and review about the development of the services provided by the NHS is a crucial factor to the future. WWTW continues to work with and along side the NHS, as do other leading military charities. We are able to provide veteran specific knowledge and expertise to assist in the care and treatment of veterans provided by the NHS as well as providing choice to veterans. We are very proud to be part of a recent initiative lead by Help for Heroes, which includes Combat Stress, the NHS and the Big White Wall called Contact, which is looking to improve the visibility to veterans of mental healthcare, as well as collaborating between all parties in order to manage the journey between our different services more seamlessly and effectively.

As an organisation WWTW provides mental healthcare to veterans and their immediate families through our Head Start programme. Our national network of over 200 psychotherapists are able to provide between 12 – 18 private sessions, usually within 10 miles of an individuals home, and within 10 days of the Head Start team receiving the consent of the individual once a referral has been received from a GP. For any further details on Head Start please contact the team Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm on 01263 863906 or email headstart@wwtw.org.uk.

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