Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: NI Army charity sees surge in veterans seeking help

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An NI veterans charity has said the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a surge in demand for its mental health support services.

Beyond the Battlefield, based in Newtownards, County Down, said military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been looking for help in increasing numbers.

PTSD can cause insomnia, flashbacks and feelings of isolation.

The Armed Forces Covenant is helping to fund a Covid Impact Programme.

Johnstone Kirkpatrick, who served with the First Battalion Irish Rangers up to 1993, is among those who have turned to the charity for mental health support during lockdown.

Image caption Johnstone Kirkpatrick said lockdown meant having more time to think about things

Mr Kirkpatrick, who has a range of health problems, including lung cancer, psoriasis and PTSD, said he struggled to cope with the restrictions imposed during the pandemic

"I was one of the vulnerable-type people so I had the twelve weeks (shielding) straight away," he told BBC Newsline.

"I live on my own so it was difficult at times, being on your own. It's like a dark place, especially with the PTSD."

He added: "It was a quiet time in my life but it lets you think more about things and sometimes you're in dark places."

Personal security remains an issue for some army veterans here in Northern Ireland and they are reluctant to reveal their identities.

Two people agreed to speak to us, on condition of anonymity.

They said they want to explain their own personal difficulties and to highlight how the lockdown restrictions have caused similar problems for many other people who served in the Army.

'I think I'm losing my mind'

One man, whose service with the Royal Irish Regiment included a tour of Iraq in 2003, said lockdown meant he had "more panic attacks than I would generally have".

"I woke up a few times. I would get out of my bed, run down the stairs, sit on the stairs and then come back up," he said.

"I wouldn't even know what I was doing," he added.

"I remember saying to my wife: 'I think I'm losing my mind here.'"

A woman, who served with the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and the Royal Irish Regiment during the conflict here, explained how she struggled to cope with the impact of lockdown.

"I felt that the whole Covid situation compounded what I was feeling, what I was going through on a day-to-day basis," she said.

"Because I already felt locked-in as such, with the anxiety and the depression, and trying to be independent and trying to work through it on a day-to-day basis - I just felt Covid-19 had taken any kind of support away from me," she added.

"I think there are an awful lot of people in this country who are very like me, but who are afraid to speak and come forward because, as we know, mental health issues are a very hard thing to talk about," she explained.

Image caption Annemarie Hastings is chief executive of Beyond the Battlefield

These army veterans are just some of the people who have been seeking help from the staff and volunteers at the Beyond the Battlefield centre during the pandemic.

The charity's chief executive Annemarie Hastings said: "We've noticed a great spike of the numbers of veterans and their families presenting to us looking for help and support during Covid-19".

She added: "They obviously had increased mental health issues and certainly physical issues as well with lockdown and not getting out."

"It was a bit of a vicious circle because mental health, physical health, one was connected to the other, so they had many, many problems and suffered a lot."

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