Tobias Ellwood is a Defence Minister and is MP for Bournemouth East.
Our Armed Forces need to be fit for military operations. But operational fitness is not just about being physically fit; our people also need to be mentally fit and reliant.
A third of us are likely to experience some form of mental illness during our lifetime which, left unaddressed, can lead to a loss of self-esteem and isolation – spiralling towards tragic consequences. So, we need to be more open about mental well-being, not least in the macho environment of the Armed Forces.
Any suicide is a tragedy, but it also has a devastating impact on those who are left behind. My Uncle John, a veteran, took his own life. We’ll never really know about the demons that led him down that desperate path, but we do know he had been battling depression for some time. Thankfully, over the decades since he took his own life there has been a downward trend in suicide rates.
Across Defence, we have started to remove the stigma associated with mental health. Striving to improve our mental wellbeing must be as natural as advancing our physical health. By reducing stigma, raising awareness, building resilience, enabling early detection and improving support we can create a positive culture of well-being where discussing a matter of the mind is on par with dealing with a knee injury.
In conjunction with the Samaritans, we are issuing a new pocket guide to all Regular and Reserve personnel. Entitled Looking after your Team, it will help everyone spot potential tell-tale warning signs so early intervention and treatment can then take place. It shows the importance of noticing and reporting when a friend, colleague or loved one’s behaviour starts to change – for example, if they start drinking alone, lose their professional discipline or are simply not ‘quite there’. The swifter the intervention, the easier it is to provide the right help at the right time.
As we improve support for those in uniform, our duty of care must continue when our people eventually depart military service and return to civilian life. Thankfully (and contrary to common perception) incidents of depression, PTSD and suicide are lower in the forces and veteran communities than the general public. Indeed 90 per cent of those departing the Armed Forces are either back studying or in a job within six months.
Some service personnel and veterans, through no fault of their own, may need support. We owe it to all our brave service personnel to ensure support is there when they need it most. And that is why we’ve established a 24/7 Mental Health Helpline and the Veterans’ Gateway to provide easy on-line access to a wealth of military-facing support.
In the veterans community, it is often the quieter ones, possibly too proud to reach out for support, that need our help. And that’s why all of us, in every community, have a role to play. As a society that has such respect and reverence for our military, I believe it’s time to emulate the US approach, and adopt a more public expression of appreciation of our veterans. Not just helping with their transition into civilian life and improving our veteran specialist support, but in simply being more pro-active by saying: ‘thank you for your service’.
We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude. We should not shy away from saying it. And in doing so, our veterans will feel valued. Who knows – it could make all the difference. I wish I had the chance to tell my Uncle John how proud I was of his service.
So, today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, let’s shatter the mental health taboo. As we reflect on events a hundred years ago, when the actions of a previous generation shaped, in part, what Britain looks like today, let’s get better at thanking today’s brave veterans for what they have done for a grateful nation.