Around this 30th anniversary of the Falklands War I have been thinking about veterans and their mental health. I’m not really sure where this post will go as I start writing it, because early internet browsing makes me already realise that we don’t know as much about this subject as we need to.
I decided to write something as the final commerations of the Falklands War took place and because of nothing more than two statistics I’ve heard during the commerations of the South Atlantic conflict:
- More veterans of the Falklands War have taken their lives by suicide since the conflict than were killed during it.
- 10% of the prison population are former Armed Services’ personnel.
And of course, that means both categories come to the attention of the police as we are almost always called to suicides and almost always involved in the investigation and prosecution of offenders. But I am caused to ask myself what specifically, if anything, the police do to identify ex-forces personnel as they come into contact with the police for minor offending and what could be possible to identify people who may benefit from support.
The irony of this, is that I know how strong the links are between the police and the Armed Forces: very, very strong. I have served alongside ex-forces personnel and I would go so far as to say that they have been amongst the most impressive and professional people I have worked with and from whom I learned an enormous amount. In particular I recall working with three ex-Military police officers (at the same time) and those men taught me the kind of police officer I wanted to be. A group of police officers I used to work with went to the Commando Training Centre in Lympstone for a charity weekend of fund-raising for Help For Heroes and raised a substantial amount to support injured personnel and veterans.
The charity Combat Stress state that they are currently supporting over 200 Falklands Veterans who more than 30 years after their service, are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that, on average, our ex-forces personnel wait 13 years before seeking help with their struggles. In 2012, the Ministry of Defence is launching phase 2 of its mental health awareness campaign “Don’t Bottle It Up“, complete with publicity materials to encourage current personnel to come forward and seek needed support.
So what is this telling us? Well, firstly, we should remember that above I have just mentioned the Falklands Conflict because of the current anniversary. Obviously we have recently had men and women serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as elsewhere. The numbers killed and injured in our ongoing conflict in Afghanistan alone far exceed those in the Falklands and the combat is of a very different type. This can only be a significant generator of mental health related demand – some now; some in years to come.
The debate about policing and mental health in which I am mainly engaged often focusses upon the issue of recognition: how officers can identify all people who are potentially at risk because of mental health problems? Charities call for greater understanding of different sub-categories of mental disorder including dementia or autism, personality disorder or learning disabilities – all with an aim in mind that earlier identification can lead to earlier, more appropriate supports. The justice system also operates on similar principles for children although it may be far easier to spot a 14yr old than someone with a personality disorder.
Well, should it not be argued that the police should also be giving thought to our ability to identify and ‘divert’ Armed Forces personnel when they first come to police contact? Is it not the least we owe to those who have served our country that we think about how resettlement into civilian life with all its potential employment and adjustment problems, as well as some veterans’ mental health problems? We never routinely ask in police custody whether someone is ex-Armed Forces. Why not?! – we ask so much else and a minority of the custody sergeants working in cells blocks will probably be ex-Armed Forces themselves and all of them will be supporters of our troops.
This has to be something we can do more on: if 10% of the prison population are veterans, what is the proportion going through the CJ system to non-custodial outcomes? We ask so much of our Armed Forces, this strikes me as an area of policing and public policy that needs more thought and whilst I’m not quite sure what I have just said is coherent: I would hope it has you thinking.