The UK should introduce a “quality mark” for services offering mental health support for veterans, one of the country’s leading experts on military health has said.
Professor Sir Simon Wessely, who heads the country’s main military health research unit at King’s College London, said veterans could encounter a “bewildering” range of charities, NHS and social care organisations and that it was crucial they knew which could offer an effective service.
Describing the veterans’ mental health “arena” as “a mess”, Professor Wessely said that good services would have to meet a range of criteria and show that they were “veteran-informed” – providing mental health assessments carried out by professionals who understood the issues that can affect former military personnel.
He said that while the vast majority of veterans do not suffer any kind of mental illness, those who do often experience a complex set of problems that lead to them falling between the cracks of various NHS and social services.
“I don’t necessarily think you need veteran-specific services,” he said. “But I do think people in the business of treating veterans for service-related problems need to have the ability to do a good assessment. You need people who know the background, who know how to talk to veterans, who veterans trust.”
Contrary to popular belief, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans who have been deployed is around 4 per cent – almost the same as in the general population. However, the rate rises to 7 per cent among those who have seen combat.
A recent survey carried out by the Royal British Legion also found that 10 per cent of working-age veterans suffer from depression, compared with 6 per cent in the civilian population.
Professor Wessely, who is also president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, investigated Gulf War Syndrome in the 1990s and later set up the King’s Centre for Military Health Research. It continues to investigate the health of UK Armed Forces personnel today.
“The impact on families is not from deployment but when the parent comes back with problems,” he said. “Military families adapt very well to military life. What they don’t adapt to is when the father comes back and is drinking, or has PTSD. Poor mental health has a very poor impact on families and children.”
Stigma around mental illness still prevents many from seeking help and the public should be careful not to stereotype veterans as either “heroes” or “victims”, he added.
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