Concerns among veterans about suicide rates are mounting – but figures are not formally collected. Philip Bradfield and the Johnston Press Investigations Unit report
The leader of a Co Down charity estimates that some 17,000 military veterans in Northern Ireland have currently got some form of mental health problem – whether diagnosed or not.
Royal Irish veteran Robert McCartney estimates that 400 veterans attempt to take their own lives in Northern Ireland each year and that up to 30 of them actually die by suicide.
As chairman of Newtownards charity Beyond the Battlefield, he said veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and associated suicidal thoughts are often falling through gaps in the current safety net provided by the NHS and service-related charities.
We see the complete family unit through to a successful output. We do not signpost veterans to other organisationsAnnemarie Hastings, Beyond the Battlefield
He estimates there are some 141,000 veterans in Northern Ireland that served in the Troubles.
“Out of that some 12% have got some form of mental health problem but have not necessarily been diagnosed, around 17,000 people, and out of that, 10% are currently in the mental health system, around 1,700.
“So we know at the moment there are between 7-9,500 veterans who have been, or currently are, in mental health services in Northern Ireland.”
His figures are based on a survey of 400 GPs in Belfast, with the results being proportionately expanded for the rest of Northern Ireland.
The proportion of veterans suffering serious suicidal thoughts is “very low” in proportion to the total number being treated for mental health issues, he said.
There are some 300-450 attempted suicides by veterans in Northern Ireland annually, he said, out of which 20-30 people actually take their lives.
The Johnston Press Investigations Team has found that UK coroners do not take formal records, so there are no official figures.
“But what you cannot take into consideration, which is the main problem that we have, is death by self-infliction, that is by alcohol, prescription drugs, and non-prescription drugs,” he added.
Northern Ireland makes up only 3% of the UK population but supplies 7% of the armed forces personnel, he noted.
And 15% of those Northern Ireland personnel have been in battlefield in the past 10 years.
“So they are the ones who are now coming down the hill [with symptoms].”
He started the charity seven years ago after he was diagnosed with PTSD and went through a recovery process, qualifying as a counsellor.
The charity has over 3,120 clients receiving help with mental health, finances, tribunals, homelessness and divorce. They come from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, as well as Commonwealth countries.
Robert believes a common approach of treating PTSD with prescription drugs can make the condition worse.
A vacant hotel he knows would make an ideal veterans’ centre, he believes; an Ulster University report last month found 66% of Northern Ireland veterans would ‘definitely’ support a veterans’ centre in NI and that a further 13% would ‘probably’ support it; their primary motivation was for mental health support. The university is conducting a psychological wellbeing survey of veterans until the end of this year.
He applied for funding to the Covenant Fund on five occasions but was unsuccessful, in his view because Northern Ireland does not have a public representative on the UK Covenant Fund panel. The reason, he said, is local equality legislation, Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act.
His charity gets no government funding and survives on donations from clients and the public. Only chief executive Annemarie Hastings draws a “minimal” salary, he said.
He believes that 95% of requests to UK regimental benevolent funds, traditionally created with contributions from soldiers, are turned down. He estimates the Royal Irish Benevolent Fund currently has £6m.
“The UDR Benevolent Fund is a lot bigger than that – because they keep advertising to try and give it away – but when you bid for it, it is very hard to get. The UDR would have in the region of £20m.”
However, the UDR fund responded that it was “greatly saddened and disappointed to learn of [the] inaccurate and misleading comments”. Trustees said that the charity’s continued efforts to seek out former members who are in need are a matter of public record and that from 2008 until March 2017 it provided £4m of help to veterans and their dependents. The Royal Irish Benevolent Fund offered no comment.
One of the biggest concerns of Beyond the Battlefield, he said, is that many veterans are “signposted” from one organisation to another without getting help.
Ms Hastings said “many angry and frustrated” clients approach them after having tried six or seven other charities without getting any help.
Robert added: “I would nearly go so far as to say that the ones who commit suicide are the ones who have been signposted – because they just lose hope completely.”
The pair set a high standard for themselves. “We see the complete family unit through to a successful output,” Annemarie said. “We do not signpost veterans to other organisations.”
An east Belfast veteran who survived a 55-day siege against the Taliban has told how his life was turned around with support from Beyond the Battelfield.
Brett Savage joined the Royal Irish Regiment at 16.
In 2006 he ended up in the notorious Siege of Musa Qala in Afghanistan, where he and a handful of colleagues came under sustained attack for 55 days from the Taliban.
“I have been blown up,” he said, “I was shot in the chest plate, I have seen intestines hanging out, my mate’s blood spurting out, seen people shot, had other people’s blood squirt in my face, seen phosphorus grenades land on people. I have seen it all.”
He later began hallucinating and became aggressive, suffering flashbacks and being unable to sleep. Eventually he was homeless and sleeping in his car.
Army-appointed psychiatrists were not able to help him and charities only provided partial support.
But his life changed when he was referred to Newtownards charity Beyond the Battlefield.
“They got me all my benefits and got me off the streets and into a house. They helped me prioritise my life.
“Now I am a different person. You would not have known me two years ago. I was at death’s door.”
• Beyond the Battlefield tel: 028 91 228 389 or 07964574156
• The final report in the series is tomorrow
UDR/RI aftercare: 9042 0145
UDR Ben Fund: 028 9042 0652
Royal Irish Ben Fund: 9042 0629
Veterans UK (MoD pensions/compensation): 0808 1914218
The Samaritans: 116123
Lifeline NI 0808 808 8000
Alcoholics Anon: 0800 8177 650
Vets’ Gateway: 0808 802 1212
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619
Help for Heroes: 01980 844280
RBL: 0808 802 8080
Beyond B’field: 028 91 228 389