We must dispel the perception that most veterans are mentally damaged
The distortion that most veterans are mentally damaged by their time in uniform is not only a myth but also potentially damaging to veterans, since it may discourage them from seeking help, says Chairman of the Defence Committee, Julian Lewis MP.
The increasing spotlight on mental health across the UK is a very welcome development: many more people are now willing to discuss their problems and seek help to deal with them. The same is true for those who have served or continue to serve in the Armed Forces, where more are coming forward to seek assistance, particularly following the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, we still need to dispel the perception that most Service veterans are mentally damaged by their time in uniform, as the facts tell a very different story. In our report on Mental Health and the Armed Forces, published earlier this week, we found that, despite reported cases of mental health problems in serving personnel having risen to around 3%, this is still lower than the rate in the general public.
On the other hand, not everyone with a mental health problem will seek help, and academic studies suggest that the true rate of mental health issues among veterans could be as high as 10%. Yet, even that is at odds with the public’s belief that veterans are much more likely to develop mental health problems as a result of their service – a perception driven in part by unbalanced media coverage.
This distortion is not only a myth but also potentially damaging to veterans, since it may discourage them from seeking help. Furthermore, a great deal of emphasis is publicly placed on the most severe conditions, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), when those such as depression are much more common.
The small minority of serving personnel and veterans who are struggling with their mental health – especially those who are severely affected by PTSD – clearly need timely and appropriate provision of care. However, there is widespread confusion throughout the UK over how the promise of priority NHS care, set out in the Armed Forces Covenant, should be implemented. This means that it is still taking too long for veterans to access treatment when they need it, and levels of care vary across the country.
There is a particular risk that some veterans are falling through the gaps as they leave the military. It is thus no surprise that many veterans turn to the Service charity sector for help if they believe that the NHS is failing them. The MoD has a clear opportunity to set this straight in its forthcoming Veterans Strategy and we urge it to do so.
The MoD and the health departments, both in Westminster and in the devolved administrations, must do more to understand the extent to which the numbers of veterans with mental health problems and how they are being treated vary throughout the country. The provision of health care may be devolved, but the MoD remains accountable and needs to ensure that the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant are being implemented consistently across the UK. At the moment, this is not happening. This is why we have launched a follow-up inquiry to examine the provision of mental health care and to identify what more could be done.
Julian Lewis is the Chairman of the Defence Committee and Conservative MP for New Forest East.
PoliticsHome member Veterans Aid have responded to Julian Lewis. Hugh Milroy, Chief Executive of Veterans Aid said "Bravo Julian Lewis - the facts do indeed “tell a different story”. His words vindicate the assertion that Veterans Aid has been making for many years: Military veterans are not linearly damaged by their service." Read the full response here.