War veterans 'don't need to cope alone'

Image caption Returning to normal life can be hard

It is world mental health day on October 10, and the Ministry of Defence has launched a campaign to promote better awareness of mental health injuries, to encourage service-people to come forward if they are suffering a mental health problem.

Called 'Don't bottle it up', the campaign aims to remove the stigma from the wounds of war that can't be seen. The military mental health charity Combat Stress - which is also launching its awareness campaign today - says 85% of veterans are too embarrassed to admit to such problems, while one in three fail to tell their families.

The ad campaign, shown on the British Forces Broadcasting Service, shows a soldier trapped inside a huge bottle, desperately hammering at the glass walls trying to get out.

The campaign is aimed at persuading servicemen and women not to ignore mental health problems, in a job where many expect themselves to be "strong" and cope all the time, whether on deployment or back at home.

The heightened danger of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after deployment is well-known, but depression, anxiety or turning to alcohol to cope are far more common in the forces.

Expected to 'crack on'

Staff Sergeant Vicky Charnock became ill after several tours of duty in Afghanistan, one of them nine months long, and a tour of the Falklands. But she was too ashamed at first to ask for help. Eventually, she was diagnosed with depression.

"I thought it was rooted medically and there was something wrong with me physically, and that my tearfulness and lack of sleep was physically-based," she says.

"It actually took my unit welfare officer to point out to me that I probably was depressed."

She didn't tell her colleagues.

"While I was going through it, I didn't want people to know. I was embarrassed about it. But once I got better and realised how common it is, I realised that there was no need to be embarrassed or ashamed, and now I will tell people."

At Amport House in Hampshire, soldiers sit in discussion groups at a training session in trauma risk management, or TRiM for short. It is one of the practical measures that have already been introduced in the military to help prevent mental health injuries developing.

Since 2008, more than 5,000 servicemen and women have been trained to recognise the signs of mental distress in their comrades, so they can encourage those suffering in silence to get help.

Dave Harrison of the Royal Artillery, one of the TRiM trainers, says: "There's still an expectancy for our soldiers - both guys and girls - to crack on with the job, knowing the difficult task that they have.

"But what we want to get across is that if anything goes wrong, we're going to support you, not just physically, but mentally as well," he says.

"We have mental systems in place now - psychological systems and pillars of support - that will help you if you're suffering from a traumatic event."

'Not the end'

One of those on the course, Corporal Richie Andrews, is going back to Afghanistan soon. He says he is now more confident that he and his colleagues will know how to spot the early warning signs of distress after a traumatic event.

"Obviously, on the news you hear a lot about the deaths, but you don't hear about the colleagues that have been sat next to them and been fighting with them for not just their six-month tour, but for the years that they've been together as well.

"Hopefully, people who are trained on this course such as myself will give them someone to talk to, and off-load it from their shoulders."

Military medics are keen to stress that coming forward for help doesn't have to spell the end of a military career.

Major John Liddell, who runs the military mental health clinic in Tidworth, says coming forward for treatment for any kind of mental health issue usually ensures that military personnel can keep on working.

He says many forget the adjustment back to "normal life" after a deployment can also take time.

"For the soldiers themselves, for six or seven months they are patrolling two or three times a day in an environment where people are trying to kill them, and that is normal life for them.

"So coming back to be with their families, and being able to walk about without looking for ground signs can take a bit of getting used to."

Combat Stress, the veterans' mental health charity, also launched their new anti-stigma campaign, after their research revealed that one in three veterans don't feel able to tell their families about their mental health problem, while 85% of veterans and their families feel ashamed or embarrassed about it.

The charity says that of the almost 200,000 men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, around 45,000 - or nearly 25% - could be battling mental health problems. Some 5% may develop PTSD - and almost 20% could suffer other problems such as depression or anxiety.

The hope is that these awareness campaigns - and the TRiM training - will help ensure that fewer serving in the forces today will have to fight those battles on their own, long after the wars themselves are over.

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