If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

Our series in the run-up to the General Election – 100 days, 100 contributors, but no politicians – continues with the documentary maker

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If by some twist of a nightmarish Channel 4 docudrama I became Prime Minister I wouldn’t waste any time.

As soon as I got my shiny shoes up on the desk in Number 10, I’d get on the phone to the Home Office and tell them we probably ought to pay more than lip service to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Could we possibly squeeze in a few hundred Syrian refugees, in line with our European neighbours? Because, you know, it seems like the decent thing to do.

In my life before becoming your ruler, I made documentary films. I’m naturally suspicious of documentary-makers (and Prime Ministers) who say they want to change the world. I make documentaries because I love doing it. But sometimes, after spending months with people whose lives are dominated by a sense of real injustice, their pain becomes pretty important to you too. Often, their stories make you sad, sometimes angry – and there’s one story that won’t ever leave me.

In 2013, I made a film about the British soldiers and veterans taking their own lives and the stubborn refusal by the Ministry of Defence to acknowledge and deal adequately with the problem.

Our investigation showed that a number of soldiers were being discharged with mental health problems. Within months of leaving service, they were taking their own lives. The MOD had no record of these suicides. They lost touch with the young men as soon as they left the services, often not even passing on their medical notes to the local GP, even when they were deemed at risk of self-harm and suicide. Many of these men suffered in silence – not even the families knew of their psychological struggle dealing with what they’d seen in Iraq and Afghanistan – before taking their lives seemingly out of the blue.

In the course of making our documentary, we trawled local papers, coroners’ records and did some old fashioned phone-bashing. We discovered that more soldiers and veterans had taken their lives in 2012 than had been killed in action in Afghanistan. The MOD had no idea - worse, they didn’t seem to want to know.

We asked the veterans' minister for an interview. He told us he was too busy. Understandable enough, you might think. He might well have more important things to attend to – he’s a government minister, after all. Except, that same week, a photograph appeared of him cutting the ribbon at the unveiling of a piece of public art at a provincial airport.

For the mothers and fathers who had lost their children and who had also delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street, it wasn’t a great comfort.  Come to think of it, as your new leader, I’d probably take the opportunity to make him Minister of Public Art and he’d spend the rest of his government life in a kind of purgatory shuffling from one provincial airport to another. Sorry, pal.

Once he was out of the way, I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds. Those injuries are dealt with superbly at facilities like Headley Court: but what about the trauma we can't see? The invisible scars that lie beneath the surface?

The failure to address the mental health of our returning veterans is one of the great scandals of our time and this government, even after we put our evidence to them, has fallen woefully short of what’s necessary. Just last week, a soldier called Bradley Paul took his own life. He had been medically discharged from the Army last year after being blown up in Afghanistan. According to those close to him, his psychological wounds weren’t properly dealt with. And so, yet another family is left to deal with the fallout of an unimaginable personal tragedy.

I’d make sure my government tracked soldiers after they’d left the armed forces and helped them to get the treatment they needed to avoid more families losing their sons, husbands and fathers. Soldiers know what they’re signing up for when they go and fight, but we owe them a duty to do our best to look after them when they come home.

Lastly, I’d ensure our democracy wasn’t being undermined by overzealous security services abusing outdated surveillance laws to intimidate journalists and their sources. Perhaps I’m biased, but the fact that the phone records of 608 journalists were accessed to investigate leaks was one of the more worrying things I’ve learned this year. That a government minister felt the need to say recently that “Journalism is not terrorism” is chilling in itself.

Don’t even get me started on prisons and faith schools. That’s probably enough for one day.

James Jones’ next film about Israel and Gaza will be on BBC2 in April.

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