The bottom line up front: We need to create a central hub and a robust transition process, specifically designed to better support veterans
In the main room at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Jersey, the strategic plans resulting from the recent States of Jersey Mental Health Strategy were being presented to a diverse audience of professionals pledging their commitment to the mental health of our island.
In the small bar area, 8 veterans sat drinking tea whilst patiently awaiting their turn to take centre stage at the afternoon session. An opportunity to talk about their own thoughts and experiences around veteran’s mental health. These 8 veterans were from Rock2Recovery, Royal British Legion, the Resilience Development Company and a few others who understand first-hand the challenges associated with the transition between military and civilian life and the importance of effective support. Conversation meandered through the finer points of life and righting the wrongs of the world but against a backdrop of humour and observation, one shared belief stood out; we need to create a central hub and a robust transition process, specifically designed to better support veterans with their mental health.
Together we can build opportunities, awareness, insight and action.
Fast forward to the start of the afternoon session, Nigel Smith from the Royal British Legion enabled a specific focus on the challenges faced by veterans and the evident struggles with adapting to “civvy street” and battling mental illness.
Rock2recovery were represented by Jamie and Foxy; 2 former Elite soldiers who told their powerful and personal accounts of their own experiences and struggles with mental illness. A journey that quite clearly blew away the audience with their honesty, commitment and passion.
Against the backdrop of a very real reality described by Jamie and Foxy, I was tasked with facilitating the larger group as they discussed the issues, strengths and vision for the mental health care of local veterans. Many interesting points were raised and suggestions put forward and it was evident that there was a definite appetite for improved support and service provision by key decision makers in the audience. I am looking forward to a full write up by the Royal British Legion who will no doubt arrange for wider circulation as part of a step towards addressing the issues raised.
Having had 24hrs to reflect on the day these are my 10 personal insights:
- Those who attended the afternoon went away with a very different perspective on veteran’s mental health issues.
- Veterans need more than the services currently provided in order to effectively transition from the military and reduce the risk of poor mental health.
- A consistent and readily available single point of contact needs to be established, preferably a veteran due to the views raised around veteran potential distrust for civilians.
- The “one size fits all approach” doesn’t work when supporting civilians and the same is true for veterans. A diverse range of support needs to be in place. Exploring a variety of strategies, going well beyond medicine and psychological intervention, to maximise tolerance to change and uncertainty, mental health and wellbeing. No one agency alone can affect that change.
- Stigma is still an issue for military veterans as they see mental illness as a sign of weakness.
- A more robust and comprehensive transition period is needed to assist veterans integrate into civilian life. More work needs to be done in helping veterans adapt to civilian life outside the forces, find a job and set up their lives.
- Communication and support from the families and social network around veterans is key. They need to be equipped with spotting the signs of poor mental health and need to be kept informed of help and services available.
- GP’s need to play a more active role in referring. They need to ensure an up to date knowledge of the different options and services available from the wider community such as support groups and third sector offerings.
- It was clear to me that military veterans have one frame of reference and civilians have another. It’s almost an invisible boundary that is difficult to cross in a room full of dedicated people so how does one individual do it alone when they leave service? We need to address that transition and move the emphasis from just coping to thriving. Through skills, support and guidance.
I’ll finish with the elephant in the room and a striking observation.
10. During the facilitated discussion not one person be it veteran or health professional, posed the most thought provoking and fundamental question of all; what measures can we put in place to prevent poor mental health in veterans and reduce the risks associated with the transition process? It had dominated the discussion earlier in the day and appeared to be neglected during afternoon session.
I was even more surprised when someone compared mental illness in veterans to having a cold – inevitable and no prevention would help. I could not disagree with this more and thankfully many others in the room felt the same way. In my view, that type of thinking gets us nowhere and begs the question, are some professionals part of the problem rather than the solution?
My view is that veteran’s mental health like physical health can be developed, maintained and protected and when it comes to transition from the military, prevention against poor mental health is absolutely key to the process. I’m a big believer in developing skills that will enable veterans to become better quipped for the challenges, change and uncertainty associated with transitioning into civilian life. Learning ways to avoid isolation when things get hard, establishing strong relationships with those around them and developing a confident skillset to reduce stress and anxiety and create resource, hope and choice when moving forward into a new civilian life.