Peter Webster looks at the growing problem of mental ill-health among some ex-Armed Forces personnel and examines why this issue impacts directly upon the private security sector.
The problem of mental ill-health among ex-Armed Forces personnel is particularly acute. Indeed, the number of ex-soldiers, sailors and airmen who accept and acknowledge that they’re suffering with this issue and who have sought help could just be the tip of the iceberg.
Approximately 20,000 individuals leave our Armed Forces each year, most of whom have had their lives enriched by dint of experiences while serving their country, and most of whom manage to make the transition into civilian life without too many difficulties.
That said, for far too many, a smooth transition is made impossible because of mental health issues resulting from occurrences and experiences that they may have endured either before, during or after their military service.
Most of us have heard of the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Caused by very stressful and/or frightening events, this anxiety disorder has become synonymous with those who have experienced the trauma of military combat. Some of those individuals who’ve served in Northern Ireland, the South Atlantic, Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD in significant numbers.
The symptoms of PTSD vary widely, but can include nightmares and flashbacks as well as feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. While the condition can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event, it may also occur weeks, months or even years later (when it’s then known as delayed-onset PTSD).
Scale of the problem
Last year, the Ministry of Defence published figures showing a 12% increase in the rate of mental disorders experienced by Armed Forces personnel as a whole, including episodes of depression and anxiety. When it came to PTSD, the figure had risen by 19% from 2013.
There are an estimated five million veterans in the UK, and with the aforementioned number of 20,000 personnel leaving our Armed Forces each year, this figure is increasing daily.
The private security business sector plays host to a significant number of ex-military personnel and current reservists. Estimates suggest that they could represent more than 33% of the total cohort. At Corps Security, 55% of our colleagues have served their country in one area of the military or another.
Despite those statistics, the issue of mental ill-health within our business sector receives scant attention while there’s also a general lack of awareness about PTSD (and, indeed, other mental health issues) that may be impacting a high percentage of our workforce. This situation needs to change.
In the UK, there are more than 2,000 registered military charities (many of which provide for more than just Armed Forces leavers, including those still serving and their families). All of these organisations are doing a fantastic job in providing support for those who have risked life and limb for their country.
The work that these charities do for those veterans with clearly visible signs of their sacrifice is amazing but, unfortunately, many veterans carry invisible scars which impact psychologically and emotionally.
Non-physical trauma support
Combat Stress, the leading veteran’s mental health charity, focuses on helping people with the non-physical side of trauma. The charity provides free-of-charge support for nearly 6,000 men and women ranging in ages from 19-97. It’s a vital lifeline for these individuals and, just as importantly, their families and aims to diligently assist veterans live a life free from the harmful effects of psychological wounds.
Combat Stress was well ahead of its time. Founded in 1919 as the Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare Society, its first ‘recuperative home’ was opened in 1920 on Putney Hill in London. The organisation pioneered a more compassionate and rehabilitation-based approach.
Back to the present day, though. While the vital work of Combat Stress continues to make a real difference to many lives, the security sector needs to do far more in terms of supporting its ex-Armed Forces employees.
We must learn to understand and recognise the symptoms of PTSD and put mechanisms in place that can help people through it.
Reading the tell-tale signs
The symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person and very few people will exhibit the same patterns of behaviour. This can make spotting the tell-tale signs difficult, but sufferers will usually experience severe anxiety, flashbacks, uncontrollable thoughts and nightmares. Feelings of depression, guilt, tension and worry often pervade and make day-to-day activities difficult to perform.
It should not be forgotten that PTSD can also have a detrimental effect on physical well-being. Higher rates of neurological, respiratory, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular symptoms have been reported, while sweating, nausea or trembling episodes are not uncommon.
Avoidance of reminders around the trauma is another symptom of PTSD and this can include people, situations or circumstances resembling – or otherwise associated with – the event.
Those with PTSD often try to push memories out of their minds and avoid thinking or talking about the event in detail. Others will spend large amounts of time pondering on questions that prevent them from coming to terms with the episode. They will ask why it happened to them and how it could have been prevented.
The main treatments for PTSD are psychotherapy and medication. The good news is that it’s possible for this condition to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it’s never too late to seek help. Before having treatment, a detailed assessment of an individual’s symptoms will be carried out to ensure whatever treatment is administered will be tailored to their specific needs.
Veterans’ mental health problems may be made worse or caused by post-service factors, such as the difficulty in making the transition to civilian life. People with PTSD may become emotionally numb, aggressive and nervous. When in a working environment such as the security guarding sphere, it can be all-too-easy to dismiss this type of behaviour as a ‘bad attitude’, or to excuse it by saying that a given person is simply going through a difficult patch.
Particularly in male-dominated environments, there can be a reluctance to broach the subject of emotional and mental health issues. It can be easy to simply avoid talking about them.
Many men feel that it would be a weakness to acknowledge a mental health issue and either mask their problem or fail to recognise the symptoms. However, any failure to address the issue early on can lead to long-term problems and affect an individual’s ability to work at all. This is part of the reason why, in the past 30 years, three-to-four times more men have taken their own lives than women.
This situation simply has to change. A corporate and industry-wide reassessment of how mental health is dealt with is the first and most important step on the journey towards helping those with this type of illness.
Therefore, training on the subject should be given to all management such that they can recognise the signs, talk to the people involved with genuine understanding and appreciation and then take appropriate action.
Base of understanding must widen
Our base of understanding has to widen. We’ve all suffered wide-eyed sleepless nights at some time or another, musing over issues like report deadlines, budget over-spend or target shortfalls that, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty minor. The following day, it’s almost inevitable that our performance will have suffered as a result of grogginess.
Imagine then, the horrors endured by those suffering with PTSD, those that have real night sweats and recurring nightmares based around occurrences that they’ve witnessed and undergone which, in truth, are a little more challenging than a photocopier not working properly or a buffet lunch arriving half an hour later than scheduled.
If one of our ex-Armed Forces colleagues is late for work, appears groggy and unable to focus on the tasks in hand, do we simply berate them for their ‘poor performance’, or do we do the right thing and dig a little deeper to identify the underlying reasons behind their demeanour?
We should absolutely focus on the latter. It’s incumbent upon us to care for them as they have previously cared for us.
Peter Webster is CEO of Corps Security