Why I'm not dead...a veterans tale of mental health
This is going to be a macabre subject and article, why ? Because it involves some in depth discussion of suicide, mental health and the world a veteran faces when he/she leaves the military. I use my own recent experiences to highlight some issues.
In 2018 it is estimated that 58 veterans took their leaves, the majority having deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan during their military service.
The statistic alone is scary, but it gets scarier when you compare it against the national statistics. According to the office for national statistics Men, Divorcee's, and people from deprived areas of the country are the 3 highest at risk sections of the UK population.
Now without a statistic to back this up I'm going to take a leap and say that if someone looked at the divorce rates amongst military personnel it would be higher then average.
And further out on the limb, that a high proportion of those who join the military aren't from affluent areas of the country.
And I think it's safe to say that the majority of veterans are men, but I firmly acknowledge there are female veterans.
So if we compound all that it is no wonder suicide rates amongst veterans are high, so what can we do about it?
Before we do that let me take you on a quick canter through my time in the military and experience of transitioning to civilian life. Hopefully for the civilian reader this will help you get a feeling of some of the issues and aspects that make a veteran a unique beast.
I will then dive into how I think we each can make an effort to solve this problem.
Throughout my story try and spot a few of the high risk factors...
I left the military in Spring 2018 after serving pretty much full time since I was 18 (Im now 32).
During my time I deployed to Iraq when I was 18, I enjoyed my time so much that when asked to extend I took the opportunity. I ended up spending a total of 9 months in Basra, 9 months because in early August 2006 I was blown up whilst on a night patrol. Fortunately I was in a Warrior vehicle (a tank in civi speak) but I still took secondary frag (rock and particles thrown out by the blast) to the face and neck. This blew my helmet off and eye protection and managed to damage my right eye.
I'm fine and was fine but my eyesight in my right eye was damaged and the doctors didn't know if it would improve or deteriorate so sent me home.
Side note - When i got back to RAF Brize Norton I was told to make my own way to The Military wing at Selly Oak hospital!! All I had was my body armour and helmet, the combats I had been wearing, my beret and an eye patch. Fortunately Crazy Bob (whom we'll meet in another blog sometime) drove from the shire to pick me up and take me to Selly Oak, where on arrival in A&E the civilian nurses went pale with shock and sent me away saying the military wing was on the other side of the hospital. This was pre Help for Heroes when no one gave a shit, fortunately people seem to care a bit more now.
Once recovered, I was informed of the opportunity to go to Afghanistan so less then a year later I was on my way to Afghanistan. This was a great tour and despite getting blown up 3 more times I managed to dodge serious injury.
After my first Afghan tour I decided being an officer didn't look too hard so went to Sandhurst and then popped out into an Infantry Battalion, where I deployed on my second tour of Afghan getting blown up 1 more time but I'd perfected it by then so managed to once again avoid injury.
The punchlines of my career after my second tour of afghan are, I returned to the UK did the olympics security task, fell down Pen y fan, broke myself and realised I didn't want to be in the special forces bad enough to permanent injury myself. Then soon after I deployed on my final Op tour back to Afghan this time to Kabul.
It was soon after returning from Kabul in 2014 that I got married, this marriage was a result of my experience seeing the impact a lack of a father figure had on Ugandan society. This experience was gained between my time in Iraq and Afghanistan when I went on a charity mission to Kosovo a suburb of the capital Kampala in Uganda. I had fathered a child with a woman I barely knew and decided the right thing to do morally was to marry her and give that a go. That was 100% the wrong thing to do in hindsight.
5 years later now in 2019, I'm in the process of divorce after suffering what ended up being 4 and abit years of gradually escalating domestic abuse (violence, theft, and emotional abuse). Abuse which I didn't really see until after I was hospitalised by this woman and the police allocated me a domestic abuse care worker who walked me through a domestic abuse assessment and I came out with the highest score possible.
I left the military in an attempt to settle down, be a father and save a marriage I could see was on the rocks. I was fortunate enough to land a good job in a big 4 consultancy which I had to leave after just a year due to this abusive woman deliberately targeting my job and colleagues to the point that my position was untenable.
So my transition out and my time in the military has been anything but plain sailing so I feel uniquely qualified to comment on veterans mental health and the struggles a veteran can be faced with.
Despite all that I'm not Dead
... Despite statistically probably being in the highest risk category there is I'm not suicidal for a few reasons;
I feel free and fortunate to not be in an abusive relationship anymore
I have 2 kids that I love and who need a father, I'm passionate about the importance of a the father figure in society's construct.
I don't feel like I'm owed anything for my service, I didn't serve for you, the Queen or my country really I served because of the lads around me and because going to war/on operations is the highest level of honour/gift there is.
As an officer I got used to and embraced being isolated from colleagues and peers. This was mainly developed on my 2nd Afghan tour when it was just me and 40 troops rolling around the Helmand green zone/dashte. As the officer i had to detach myself to a degree to ensure I was in the correct professional position to do my job.
I'm now in a good job where I feel valued and like I actually can add something to the business.
I feel that as a direct result of my military experience I have a resilient mind and have learnt that mental health is like any other health and needs to be managed.
Not all veterans are fortunate to have developed such a resilient mind and mechanisms to maintain their mental health. Therefore when subject to the rigours of transitioning to civilian life and the various demands civilian life creates they can suffer and probably suffer in silence.
So what can we all do to help prevent further veteran suicides and more generally help those around us with mental health?
I allude to it in that sentence, the burden is not on the veteran or any individual to seek help it is on all of us to identify those around us or on our social periphery who may be exhibiting some of the following signs:
Excessive sadness or moodiness: Long-lasting sadness, mood swings, and unexpected rage.
Hopelessness: Feeling a deep sense of hopelessness about the future, with little expectation that circumstances can improve.
Sudden calmness: Suddenly becoming calm after a period of depression or moodiness can be a sign that the person has made a decision to end his or her life.
Isolating themselves from friends or family: Choosing to be alone and avoiding friends or social activities also are possible symptoms of depression, a leading cause of suicide. This includes the loss of interest or pleasure in activities the person previously enjoyed.
Changes in personality and/or appearance: A person who is considering suicide might exhibit a change in attitude or behavior, such as speaking or moving with unusual speed or slowness. In addition, the person might suddenly become less concerned about his or her personal appearance.
Dangerous or self-harmful behavior: Potentially dangerous behavior, such as reckless driving, engaging in unsafe sex, and increased use of drugs and/or alcohol might indicate that the person no longer values his or her life.
Recent trauma or life crisis: A major life crises might trigger a suicide attempt. Crises include the death of a loved one or pet, divorce or break-up of a relationship, diagnosis of a major illness, loss of a job, or serious financial problems.
Making preparations: Often, a person considering suicide will begin to put his or her personal business in order. This might include visiting friends and family members, giving away personal possessions, making a will, and cleaning up his or her room or home. Some people will write a note before committing suicide. Some will buy a firearm or other means like poison.
Threatening suicide: From 50% to 75% of those considering suicide will give someone -- a friend or relative -- a warning sign. However, not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it. Every threat of suicide should be taken seriously.
Leaving the military can be a very isolating time, especially the first 12-18 months, when an individual's values, identity and beliefs are all thrown into question. So a person leaving the military may, due to the very circumstances they are in, be forced to exhibit a few of those signs.
To the civilian reader who may work with or be hiring veterans, don't be shy in asking ex forces colleagues for a beer or brew and welcoming them into social events.
That veteran may have a strong support network and that's great but equally they may have no one they really know outside of the military so starting to form and build new social connections is just another task they have to get to grips with.
Also be aware that veterans are inherently experienced but loyal dogs that will take a beating for their project, their boss or their colleagues. I would say that as a veteran I need to actively work on being less loyal, that's a weird thing to say but the team and culture in the civilian world just isn't their to support the level of loyalty I'm used to displaying.
So can I suggest 3 things we should all do that just might save a veterans or for that matter anyone's life:
Ask a veteran for a beer, regularly, veterans like beer! But seriously the first 12 to 18 months of someone leaving the military is a really hard time and a work colleague or acquaintance saying fancy a beer would go along way. Getting it in the diary !
Actively and deliberately be aware of the risk factors and be aware of friends/colleagues who might be going through hard times. Who in your social circle or work life is having a particularly hard time of life? This links into one of my other articles about being deliberate in how we approach life.
Be proactive, the burden is on us to offer help/friendship not the person who is struggling to ask for help. Who can you actively help?
I hope this article has been worth the read and you can now relate a little bit more to a veteran's challenge when moving from the military into civilian life and the mental health issues in general. I hope you absorb the warning signs and have the courage to take on board and enact the 3 tips I offer. I've tried to use my story to illuminate some fairly common issues veterans face during service and when they leave. If you have found this article helpful please do share it.
Finally veterans are an invaluable source of creativity, intelligence and experience and absolutely should be factored into your businesses hiring strategy. This article articulates the a specific scenario/set of events please take it on board but don't let it negatively affect your view of veterans and their ability to benefit your organisation.
For more in depth knowledge of the signs and aspects affecting suicide please check out mentalhealth.org
If you are struggling I'd love to chat, message me on Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn and I'll respond asap.
If I'm not the right person please visit the NHS website and seek help that way. You've got this!