Image for Walking with the Wounded News - Interview with Klara, Programme Manager for our mental health programme. / (Klara and Rod Head Start at desks
 - Klara and Rod Head Start at desks - Help for heroes

Interview with Klara, Programme Manager for our mental health programme.

Within the veteran community, there are a number of different outlets that exist to support ex-servicemen and women with their mental health. So where does Walking With The Wounded fit into the mix?

As a result of recent campaigns, mental health has become a more and more talked about topic. Within the veteran community, there are a number of different outlets that exist to support ex-servicemen and women with their mental health. So where does Walking With The Wounded fit into the mix? 

Today, we’re speaking to Klara, Programme Manager for Head Start, about the programme’s role in supporting our wounded and her thoughts on the veteran mental health support sector. Head Start is WWTW’s mental health support programme. Via a national network of therapists, the programme funds private face-to-face therapy for those with mild to moderate mental health difficulties.

In your own words, how would you describe Head Start?

Head Start offers talking therapies from private accredited therapists across the country to support ex-service personnel. Our primary aim is to source mental health support near to our beneficiaries so they don’t need to travel far for appointments or opt for residential treatment, which takes them away from their families and other commitments. The ability to receive support locally within the community is crucial, as it means more individuals can access support and remain engaged throughout their treatment. This type of local support hasn’t always been widely available.

Our other aim is to deliver speedy therapy. In the military, it’s unusual to be put on a waiting list for support from a doctor, therefore waiting lists outside of the military often come as a surprise to veterans returning to ‘civvy street’. With barriers, such as stigma, already delaying veterans seeking support, any additional delays can lead to veterans feeling dissatisfied. Most importantly, quickly providing support prevents individuals’ mental health deteriorating even further, hence why it’s so important that Head Start maintains its prompt intervention.

How can ex-service personnel access support from Head Start?

First and foremost, individuals must be referred by a GP or healthcare professional. This means we have access to their current records. We’re not here to ask veterans to take part in another assessment, because the chances are they’ve already done one. We’ll get their assessments from their GP or most recent case worker if they’ve been supported by another programme previously.

As soon as the consent form is signed and it lands on our desks, we begin the process of finding the individual a suitable therapist - based on their needs and upon the particular skill set of the therapist.

How’s best to go about seeking support initially?

It can be difficult to navigate where to get support from. It can be confusing. As a veteran, looking for support for the first time, and in particular mental health support, I recommend using the NHS TIL service. TIL stands for Transition, Intervention and Liaison. It’s a fairly new NHS team but they have a great geographical spread. These teams will see a veteran face-to-face or over the telephone, to conduct a very thorough assessment of their needs. With this information, the service will immediately identify the best type of support for that individual.

These decisions are always in the best interest of the veteran – it saves individuals moving from one organisation to the next, only to find out that they’re not eligible, or that a certain type of support isn’t going to be beneficial to them.

So that’s your first port-of-call: the NHS TIL service. Here at Head Start, we’re part of the Midlands and East Veterans TIL service – which means referrals to Head Start are completely seamless. You can find all of the information on the NHS Choices website.

There’s also something called the Veterans’ Gateway, which has only recently launched. It quickly identifies an individual’s needs and provides them with a good place to start from a whole network of organisations that support the Armed Forces community. And they don’t just provide mental health support; they offer advice regarding employment, housing and family support too. So rarely is it just mental health support that is needed. Lots of factors contribute to your mental health and equally your success with employment.

Can you tell us a bit more about Head Start’s relationship with Contact?

Contact is another recent collaboration of military charities with the aim to make the process of looking for mental health and well-being support after leaving the Armed Forces, as simple as possible. Head Start joins all of the Contact approved influencers in pooling expertise and knowledge about the ex-forces community. This information then underpins the strategic development of the services that we offer.  We engage with other Contact members to promote a collaborative and seamless service that looks for solutions to what can often seem a convoluted and confusing process. It’s a good place to start looking for support and it’s great to be a part of the collaboration as a whole.

How would you describe your role as Programme Manager?

Head Start delivers timely support, near to our beneficiary’s homes – so I’ve got to ensure that that’s what we’re doing. I’m constantly evaluating and analysing all of our figures and that naturally involves a lot of client management, ensuring that engagement is being maintained. For example, I might discover that one of our chaps hasn’t turned up to his appointment that day. We’re not going to turn around and say: “Well you didn’t turn up, that means no more support for you”. I’ll telephone them to ask the reason behind them missing their session, and if there’s anything we can do to help resolve this – my aim is to get them back to a place where they feel they can continue with their therapy.

As I’ve mentioned already, we’re involved with the NHS TIL service as well as many other support providers, so a lot of my time goes into forming and maintaining these partnerships. We work together to ensure that support pathways are as seamless as possible, to prevent cracks appearing and in turn prevent beneficiaries falling through them.

So in a nutshell, it’s my role to develop and strengthen Head Start. I ensure that our beneficiaries receive quality support, and identify any barriers that might prevent them maintaining their engagement with the therapy.

Do you have regular contact with the therapists themselves?

Yes. I have a good relationship with all of the therapists. Whilst we work remotely and our therapists are all over the country, we’re regularly in contact via email and telephone, and we have a Newsletter that keeps everybody in the loop about how the programme is getting on.

We get feedback from our therapists, and bear in mind that not all of them work solely with veterans, they work with civilians too. A couple of remarks are that they admire the underlying strength in our veterans and their commitment to reaching their therapeutic goals. And that’s so important. It’s not just about turning up to the sessions. The individual has to have that commitment and the determination. And you know what? Therapy is tough. It’s hard work, it’s emotionally exhausting and you do have to fully engage with it for it to be beneficial. So to hear that our beneficiaries possess this underlying strength and determination is a real testament to the ex-service cohort.

Do you like your job? Is there anything that you particularly enjoy?

Yes! What’s really enjoyable is…we can deal with some quite complex presentations of mental health and that poses an immediate challenge to supporting that veteran at that time. And like I said, they might already feel disillusioned to their previous support, if something hasn’t worked in the past. So it’s always really rewarding when we’ve helped that person to have faith in the support that they’re receiving. There’s nothing better than hearing a veteran say: “Thank you! That’s really worked. I’m in a much better place because of it”.

And even when there’s not full-recovery immediately, it’s equally rewarding that the therapy we’ve provided has simply addressed a certain area of their life and that alone has provided that veteran with a better quality of life.

Is there anything that you find particularly challenging?

Obviously running a national programme remotely carries its own challenges! Even for us, having comms solely over the phone and email isn’t quite the same as having that face-to-face… I’d love to meet all of our beneficiaries and have that personal rapport with them. So actually building relationships in the way we do - the way we have to - is a challenge in itself.

But sometimes what I find challenging is also what I think veterans find challenging. It’s about navigating where the best support is. And although we have the TIL services and Veterans’ Gateway/Contact who try to make this process as simple as possible, they’re still relatively new initiatives. We come up against the same barriers – what is the best support and who/where is it going to come from?

How much does Head Start rely on collaboration?

Oh, collaboration is a huge part of Head Start. And the same goes for Walking With The Wounded as a service provider. I’ve already touched on our collaboration with the TIL services, and doing this joined-up working helps us to identify gaps in the care that’s being provided. It’s always about developing and improving, and without the collaboration and without sharing this information between us; we just wouldn’t be successful in providing quality support.

It’s the small things. When a veteran comes to us for support, quite rightly, they don’t want to be relied upon to provide the information gathered by Partner A, Partner B, Partner C. By all working together, we can avoid the individual having to repeat their experiences, telling their story over and over again and actually having to relive their trauma. Collaboration means that we’re not duplicating support, especially the kind that hasn’t worked in the past. By knowing what Help for Heroes are doing and in turn Help for Heroes knowing what Head Start are up to, especially with regards to the same individual, it prevents us making the same mistake twice and ensures that we’re on the same page.

Why do veterans need another mental health option? Why not the NHS?

I think it’s a bit of a myth. I don’t think there are lots of other mental health options. You’ve obviously got Combat Stress, who are a veteran-only support charity and they do a great job, but they primarily offer residential support. Help for Heroes provide telephone support via their PWPs (Psychological Well being Practitioners)…and then of course there’s Big White Wall which is an online platform that can be accessed for free by all veterans 24/7. Finally, there’s the NHS. But actually, outside of these organisations, which are the main mental health support providers for the ex-forces, everything else is on a very small, local basis. It comes down to the ‘postcode lottery’. There’s not that many actually providing those interventions of treatment.

Why not the NHS? Well it should be the NHS – we all contribute to the NHS and that absolutely takes primacy. That’s why Head Start always asks: “Have you tried to access the NHS?” They do have the resources and they provide wrap-around support. But ‘Why not the NHS?’ comes down to lack of local services, or perhaps there’s a really long waiting list. And that’s where Head Start can really compliment the services that already exist.

What advice would you give to someone seeking support?

Well the practical advice is to access the NHS TIL service first, mainly because that will make your pathway to support that much smoother.

Have a look at your symptoms; listen to your partner or friends if they’re commenting on your behaviour or mood. Once you identify yourself as possibly having anxiety, depression, PTSD, whatever it might be – go out there and seek that support. Because the earlier you do, the better. Don’t be afraid to start that conversation. You will find absolutely that someone else is feeling similar to how you’re feeling. It’s not just you. Whether that’s somebody you served with, or someone in your family, and there is support out there and there are services available.

 And I suppose that advice also goes for those who need advice speaking to someone they feel need support?

Yes. Mental health first aid isn’t widely practised or trained in, but it should be. We all have mental health.

What do you see for Head Start in the future?

I suppose growth in capacity; to be able to accept more referrals. And to broaden awareness of Head Start so that others recognise us as support provider. And further collaboration. We need more partnerships with the other service providers to ensure that we’re offering wrap-around support.

Also, within the whole mental health scope – it would be great to see more drug and alcohol support available for veterans, especially considering the stark drinking culture within the Armed Forces. Head Start is unable to support those who are alcohol dependent, and therefore we rely on our partnerships to provide that particular support. But this is not as widely available as we would like.