Veterans should not be presented as a sub-species of society
Veterans should not be turned into icons of abandonment, says Veterans Aid.
Yesterday a Veterans in Custody officer from a prison contacted Veterans Aid to ask about support for veterans on discharge. The officer gave the impression that this was a serious problem. Naturally we asked how many in the system claimed to be veterans and the number quoted was 15 out of 610...a little under 2.5%. Of course, none of these claims of service were verified and that is a concern. We had previously worked with a major prison to verify military service claims by those in its care. In the end it emerged that 50% of those claiming military service in that prison had never served.
Recent examples of this relate to homelessness/rough sleeping and mental health - despite a worrying lack of hard evidence to support claims that veterans are at uniquely ‘high risk’ of either.
On June 28th Support for UK Veterans was published, a House of Commons Briefing Paper detailing the support available to armed forces veterans in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The statistics it cites relating to health, employment, home ownership etc are positive and confirm what Veterans Aid has been saying for many years – i.e. that veterans are generally robust and resilient - but it makes some sweeping assumptions about other issues that must be challenged.
The briefing paper records that “It has long been recognised that ex-service personnel are at a higher risk of experiencing street homelessness than the civilian population” and refers to the latest CHAIN database. This records that, over the year, 362 people (i.e. 7% of those seen rough sleeping in London, in 2017/18) claimed that they had experience of serving in the armed forces. However, only 135 were UK nationals - none of whom had their claims of service verified. In a city of 8.7million people, this is not a high number.
Having first-hand knowledge of fake claims of service among the homeless, coupled with dealing with the issue of rough sleeping on a daily basis, I must even question the number of 135 over the year. But the language used in the report isn’t helpful and belittles the superb work being done by the military charity sector with regards to homelessness. I’ve been involved with veteran homelessness for 25 years and I have never seen any evidence that veterans are at higher risk. Indeed, I would argue that the positive life benefits related to military service go a long way to ensuring veterans do not end up on our streets. I think the author would struggle to prove the claim of higher risk.
We know from frequent discourse with the data gatherers that this putative military service is neither verified nor examined in context.
Another example of language used in the report that can lead to misinterpretation is where it claims that “Links have been made between mental ill health and rough sleeping amongst ex-service personnel.” It doesn’t say by whom and it does not add that there are links between mental health and rough sleeping/homelessness in the general population. The language used suggests a causal link between military service and mental health among rough sleepers which I think is a very misleading.
As a key and highly experienced frontline agency with street homeless veterans we have seen no evidence to back up this link. However, there is ample evidence of general poor mental health among street dwellers.
Mental health is simply not a ‘military malady’; for example a recent BMJ survey, reported in Politics Home, revealed that MPs were “more likely to suffer depression, unhappiness and worthlessness than the general public”.
The two important issues that we seem to be forgetting are verification and context. Because of the regard and status that veterans enjoy in the UK it is important that they are represented honestly. They number more than 2million; their ages and life experiences are wide ranging and diverse; they are not an homogenous unit, yet they continue to have societal ills uniquely assigned to them as though a wider context did not exist.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funded by JRF, indicates that between 1994 and 2017 there was an increase from 13% to 18% in the proportion of people in working households living in relative poverty (that’s an increase of 40%). So, by 2017 eight million people in the UK, living in working households, were in relative poverty. Inevitably, some will be veterans.
Poverty leads to debt, mental health problems, relationship breakdown and social isolation. Many of the ex-servicemen and women seeking help from Veterans Aid are members of the working poor. The fact that they are veterans is largely irrelevant and they should not be turned into icons of abandonment.
It is entirely right that help is made available to veterans who are homeless, unemployed, unwell and in adversity and, as Support for UK Veterans illustrates, aid is there aplenty. But as Adrian Massey pointed out in The Guardian recently, “ Not all suffering is mental illness. Pretending it is raises false hopes and puts pressure on an already strained NHS”. He is not talking about veterans per se, but his conclusion about an excessively medicalised approach to mental health being neither humane nor kind is relevant. He says, “It fosters a learned helplessness, seeding doubt in the mind of the individual about their ability to endure life without the relentless input of doctors. Many form unhealthy, dependent relationships with healthcare professionals while becoming isolated from the kind of practical, amateur, human support that in many cases would be more helpful”.
Sadly, veterans’ issues can be easily hijacked to serve any topical cause; their involvement provides an immediate halo effect to the man (or woman) who calls ‘foul’ on their behalf. Using frequently unverified statistics that provoke knee-jerk reactions of outrage is not helpful and provides ammunition to those who exploit. Veterans should not be presented as a sub-species of society. Labelling everyday problems as military related issue is patently wrong. We should start thinking of veterans simply as fellow members of society with shared hopes, fears, rights, aspirations – and problems! And while we may not have a perfect veterans support system, frontline observations illustrate that if you are in crisis in Britain today, you are singularly lucky to be a veteran.
A good example is the campaign presently being run by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund to reach out to 100,000 veterans.