Security fears stop veterans asking for critical mental health support

Concerns among veterans about suicide rates are mounting '“ but figures are not formally collected. Philip Bradfield and the Johnston Press Investigations Unit report

Thursday, 19th July 2018, 8:00 am
Updated Thursday, 19th July 2018, 12:38 pm
A soldier inspects the remains of the army bus which was blown up by the IRA at Ballygawley in 1988, killing eight soldiers. One survivor tells the News Letter today how the resulting PTSD almost claimed his life and how he came out on top

There are sizeable numbers of veterans in Northern Ireland with serious unaddressed health needs – in part due to the perceived security risks of coming forward for help, a colonel has said.

The news has come as part of a UK-wide Johnston Press Investigations Unit inquiry into the true extent of suicides among military veterans across the UK.

Col John Rollins MBE made the comments as chief executive of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland (RFCA), a regionally based autonomous crown body which is working to identify and address needs on behalf of the Confederation of British Service Charities.

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Col John Rollins MBE has helped appoint 11 veterans champions to address veterans needs in NI

Many stakeholders have told JP Investigations in recent weeks that veterans are very concerned about security leaks when talking to GPs. Col Rollins confirms the general recognition that the impact of the Troubles on politics and security concerns “make life potentially a bit more difficult here than for veterans elsewhere and constrain us in identifying the scale of the issues and problems”.

“Personally I believe there are significant numbers of people in Northern Ireland who are or would be reticent, if the times comes, to declare their full military background,” he said. “So a lot of us are on a journey to pin down those needs.”

His organisation is working with the veterans research project in Ulster University which is actively researching veterans’ welfare; the responsibility for meeting their needs, he says, lies with government, the NHS, housing services and a very extensive charitable sector.

One of his big challenges is communicating with the veterans’ community. As a result RFCA has helped established 11 “veterans’ champions” in each local authority area, elected councillors who have committed themselves to take on veterans’ welfare cases “and then sit over that case until there is resolution”.

He added: “Given that so many people have made the point that there are so many people out there not being looked after, what we are saying is, ‘okay, come to us, give us your case, and we will try and sort it out for you’.”

If this does resolve a case, RFCA will take them to ministerial level.

“[We have] a number of sources, which include individual politicians who quite rightly are highlighting the needs of individuals who have come to them, and who feel they have been let down ... We hear anecdotally from what is being told by veterans to the press, or in gatherings or symposiums like some of the Royal British Legion branches [which] have repeated this belief.

“So there are a lot of people who have made that statement – something personally I believe – that there is no smoke without fire, there must be some sort of issue there.”

But pinning down the extent of the issue is difficult until veterans come forward. They may have served in Korea, WWII, Iraq, Afghanistan or Northern Ireland. “The vast majority of them slip into civilian society nicely.”

But nowadays the forces are “much more open” about helping those with post traumatic stress disorder. He left the Army eight years ago, but before doing so was commanding an operation with some “particularly difficult occurrences”. However, afterwards he was getting “concerned phone calls” to make sure he was okay, which is now common practice.

Some people are pressing for a veterans’ health care centre in Northern Ireland, but the unverified scale of need makes it difficult to justify the cost, he said. A recent Ulster University survey found 66% of veterans definitely support a centre and a further 13% probably would – primarily for mental health care.

Various trusted sources say there are significant needs it would address.

“My understanding is that they are highlighting the fact that we have sizeable numbers of veterans here who have needs that have not been recognised and dealt with the way they should.

“The type of needs varies but certainly mental needs are a significant part of that – that is what the anecdotal evidence indicates. And that part of the problem is reluctance to pursue this through the appropriate channels for the reasons we have discussed [ie perceptions of security risks].”

His determined efforts to meet this demand, he noted again, are the 11councillor ‘champions’ – and his ongoing work with the mental health sector. PTSD and related issues are definitely a part of the problem but the full picture is still unclear, he said.

On suicidal ideation (thoughts) among veterans, he says: “Some people might say the dots indicate a given picture, they may not – who knows? We are still trying to capture figures.

“I am certainly aware of a number of individuals, one we dealt with relatively recently, and we think relatively successfully. There are individual who have mental needs.”

His number one obstacle in helping them is communication. “It is getting the veterans out there to come forward, those veterans who are not being looked after to come forward, and to do that we have got to get the message out to them; ‘look there is a structure you can trust ie the 11 veterans’ champions.”

Approach your local authority and ask for them, he added.

• This veterans’ series runs this week and next.

The following have volunteered to lobby on behalf of veterans in difficulties:

Councillor Paul Michael

Antrim and Newtownabbey

Alderman Bill Keery MBE

Ards and North Down

Alderman Robert Smith

Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon

Councillor Aileen Graham

Belfast City Council

Alderman Sharon McKillop

Causeway Coast & Glens

Alderman Graham Warke

Derry and Strabane [email protected]

Councillor Alex Baird

Fermanagh & Omagh District Council

Alderman James Tinsley

Lisburn and Castlereagh

Alderman John Carson

Mid and East Antrim

Councillor Kenneth Reid

Mid Ulster Council

Councillor Patrick Brown

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council

HELPLINE NUMBERS;-

UDR/RI aftercare: 9042 0145

UDR Ben Fund: 9042 0137

Royal Irish Ben Fund: 9042 0629

Veterans UK (MoD pensions/compensation): 0808 1914218

The Samaritans: 116123

Alcoholics Anon: 0800 8177 650

Vets’ Gateway: 0808 802 1212

Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619

Help for Heroes: 01980 844280

RBL: 0808 802 8080

SSAFA: 080 731 4880

Soldiers Charity: 020 7901 8900