Military Veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
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As the British government makes plans to double the size of the Territorial Army, we look at the potential dangers of a deadly stress disorder.
Plans to increase the size of the TA from 15,000 to 30,000 could create a surge in the number of Reservists suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
They say that Reservists do not have the same level of support as regular soldiers and so are at much greater risk of suffering from the devastating disorder.
Andrew Cameron, Chief Executive at Combat Stress, said: “We should all be acutely aware that Reservists engaged in combat are 50% more likely to develop PTSD compared to their Regular counterparts. As the makeup of the Armed Forces changes, so too must the support services offered to our Service Personnel.”
Commenting on how Combat Stress was helping veterans with PTSD, Mr Cameron said: “Our Reserve & TA Liaison officers are promoting Combat Stress’s services to the Reserve community but the Government, MoD and mental health experts need to agree on how they will ensure that our Reserve Forces, with the unique challenges they face, receive the care and support they deserve. Reservists must not be left battling combat-related mental illnesses without appropriate and easily accessible support.”
On World Mental Health Day (October 10th) Combat Stress revealed that it had spent more than £1.3 million treating Afghanistan veterans suffering from mental health disorders.
The warning about the dangers posed to Reservists follows concerns expressed during the summer about the toll the disorder is having on regular soldiers. Statistics suggested that, in 2012, more British soldiers and veterans committed suicide than died in combat in Afghanistan.
According to an investigation by BBC Panorama, 50 serving soldiers and veterans may have taken their own lives in 2012, compared to a total of 44 soldiers killed during the same year in Afghanistan.
By submitting a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence, it was discovered that 21 soldiers may have committed suicide in 2012. Seven are confirmed to have taken their own lives, whilst a further 14 deaths are pending inquests with suicide suspected.
By writing to every coroner in the country and analysing coroner reports in newspapers, it was also established that at least 29 veterans killed themselves in 2012.
Family members and campaigners have expressed concern over the lack of military support for soldiers developing PTSD, particularly amongst veterans who the Ministry of Defence does not track when they return to civilian life. PTSD is a very serious condition that left untreated can be devastating.
What is the Ministry of Defence doing about PTSD?
Whilst the MoD’s own figures show that the number of soldiers suffering from PTSD has more than doubled in the last three years, they claim that the rate of 2.9% amongst serving soldiers is actually lower than amongst the general population.
The Ministry of Defence says that it realises PTSD is a very serious condition and that they have robust systems in place to deal with mental health conditions.
They say that, whilst deployed, soldiers have access to services including medical staff and welfare officers and that they can also talk to psychiatric staff, people in their unit and chaplains.
The MoD also says that it has committed £7.4m to ensuring that there is extensive mental health support in place for every soldier who needs it.
The belief that PTSD is suffered by high numbers of veterans is not universally accepted amongst leading charities.
Dr Hugh Milroy is the CEO of Veterans Aid, a charity which has been helping ex-servicemen and women for 82 years, and he said: “We know post-traumatic stress disorder exists, but the numbers are tiny. In our experience, the reality of PTSD is that it is a rarity – we are not saying that it doesn’t exist, but that it has been over-exaggerated.”
Dr Milroy served for 17 years in the RAF and was awarded the OBE in 2011 for his contribution to the wellbeing of veterans. He says that if there is a common factor amongst the veterans who approach Veterans Aid, it is that they are suffering life crises – such as relationship breakdown, mental illness (as do one in four of the population), alcohol or substance abuse and particularly debt and poverty.
Veterans Aid addresses an individual’s most immediate needs as quickly as possible and they say that problems like homelessness or addiction don’t happen overnight or as a result of military service, but are the consequence of incremental misfortunes that chip away at confidence, self-esteem and ability to cope with life’s everyday pressures.
Is the army’s PTSD treatment adequate?
Despite the army’s assurances, families of soldiers displaying PTSD symptoms have accused the MoD of providing inadequate treatment for their loved ones.
The girlfriend of Lance Sgt Dan Collins, who took his own life in 2012, complained that her partner had to drive for three hours to an army base to see a psychiatric nurse. Vicky Roach described the long journey as being more traumatic than the treatment Collins received.
There are no longer any residential units for soldiers with PTSD, so those suffering from the condition may be sent to an NHS ward where care can sometimes be inappropriate. Roach claims that Collins was left in an empty room for 20 hours a day, where he was simply dosed up with drugs including antidepressants, Diazepam and sleeping tablets.
Former commander of 3 Para, Colonel Stuart Tootal, has criticised the way the MoD handles the handover of serving soldiers when they return to civilian life. He describes the process as totally inadequate.
As veterans are not tracked once they have left the army, many more soldiers returning to civilian life may be suffering from PTSD than has been officially recognised.
What’s going to happen next?
Family members of soldiers who took their own lives have delivered a petition to the government demanding that the MoD improves the way in which it deals with PTSD.
The petition asks that residential units for PTSD victims are reinstated, that in future army medical notes are passed on to the NHS and that checks on veterans’ welfare are improved.
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