Tobias Ellwood: For too long, mental illness has been ignored and misunderstood
It’s time we recognised that striving to improve mental health is just as natural as striving to improve our physical wellbeing, writes Armed Forces Minister Tobias Ellwood
Many of us older, greyer MPs with military experience will recall little appetite during our time in uniform for discussing mental health issues. Anyone showing signs of mental fatigue would simply be told to ‘Suck it up – where is your man-suit’ or other phrases unsuitable for print.
In contrast, physical injuries were recognised as par for the course. A twisted ankle would require rest and rehabilitation, and there was a recognition that stepping away from duty for a period to repair would not be career inhibiting. Neither was there any humiliation attached to admitting the injury in the first place.
We should acknowledge that for too long mental illness has been ignored and misunderstood, shrouded in an unacceptable stigma and seen as secondary to physical health. Left unaddressed it destroys lives, breaks down relationships and leads to premature departure from the Armed Forces.
So we are introducing a new approach. A cultural change where all in uniform see the mind as a muscle that can be strengthened as well as repaired – just like any other part of the body. Today’s top-level sports competitors are only too aware of how mental preparation can significantly affect their performance – and so too does this apply to those in the Armed Services.
Our aim is to change the way mental illness is viewed so that striving to improve mental fitness is seen as just as natural as striving to improve our physical wellbeing. We will achieve this through delivering against four key areas:
Better Education and Promotion: to all ranks and all levels as to why we must look after our mind.
Prevention: Greater self-awareness of what to look for, and better resilience training for the rigours of combat environments and operational stress.
Improved Detection: Encouraging responsibility at every level: individual, family, peers and chain of command to discuss and mental health matters and step forward if affected.
Early Treatment: with a view to helping the individual rehabilitate and swiftly return to duties.
Announced in July, our new five-year strategy requires the engagement of everyone in Defence, at all levels, and will see a seismic change in our support for Armed Forces personnel and their families. And we will do this through partnering with charities, the NHS and the Defence Medical Services.
No one can predict when mental health support might be required and issues may arise many years after retirement from the Armed Forces. So, our brave veterans must also have access to the support they may need. Most veterans successfully re-integrate into civilian life. Indeed 90% have a job or are back in education gaining new qualifications within six months of leaving the Armed Forces.
Thanks to the generosity of our nation there are over 400 charities supporting our veterans’ community. But it can be confusing to know, at that moment of need, which way to turn. The launch of the Veterans’ Gateway, backed by £2 million of Government money, simplifies this as a single point of contact for veterans, allowing them to get the support they need.
Credit must be given to Prince Harry in helping promote the importance of mental fitness through his Heads Together campaign and the Invictus Games. And last month the MOD and the Royal Foundation launched a new partnership on mental health; committing to work together on training and education, drawing on the latest research.
It’s important to dispel the myths that you are more prone to suicide, PTSD, or mental health concerns, if you have served. The opposite is true in all three cases: risk is higher amongst the general population. But if help is needed it should be provided. No military personnel or veterans should feel they cannot speak out. We must do more to increase awareness of the support that’s available.
When we attempt to define what Britain is and our role in the wider world one quickly references the professionalism of our Armed Forces. It is, in part, the capability they bring which allows us as to speak with authority on the international stage and gives us the ability and desire to shape the world around us as a force for good. This can only continue if we are committed to the people who fill the ranks of our three dedicated services. Our new mental fitness strategy, alongside the work we’re already doing under the Armed Forces Covenant, is a long overdue advancement in ensuring that the nation fulfils her duty of care to those who step forward to wear the uniform.
Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and Minister for Defence People and Veterans