February 3, 2008 – London – Hundreds of veterans, including many who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being denied vital help by the [British] government to cope with the psychological fallout of war.
Despite ministerial pledges to improve support for British soldiers suffering mental health problems, veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are still not receiving funding for specialist medical treatment.
Combat Stress, a charity that assists veterans with mental health issues, is dealing with a 27 per cent increase in GP referrals of veterans – 1,200 new cases a year. More than half of those reporting psychotic nightmares, depression and suicidal thoughts have not been granted a war pension and are, therefore, not eligible for specialist psychiatric help.
Robert Marsh, Combat Stress’s spokesman, said the Ministry of Defence was challenging hundreds of cases because many involved troops who are diagnosed with mental health problems years after experiencing war.
‘It can be difficult to convince [the MoD] because so much time has elapsed in many PTSD cases, but that is the nature of these illnesses,’ Marsh said. ‘We want to treat more unfunded veterans. The challenge is, who will pay for it?’
Although the charity is grateful for the government’s 45 per cent funding increase, the number of veterans requiring help has grown significantly – but to qualify for the £245-a-day treatment provided by Combat Stress psychiatrists, a veteran must have a war pension.
The MoD has introduced a national network of 15 military mental health departments in hospitals and claims that discharge from the army due to psychological illness is ‘low’. An MoD spokesman said: ‘We recognises mental illness, including PTSD, as a serious and disabling condition, but one that can be treated. It is our policy that mental health issues should be properly recognised and appropriately handled. If a link is proved, then they will receive a war pension.’
The debate comes as the University of Manchester undertakes a study into how many Iraq war and Afghanistan veterans have killed themselves. It expects to publish the results this spring. Official figures show that at least 23 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had committed suicide from 2003 to the end of 2006. Numbers for reservists are not known. Two members of the Territorial Army who had fought in Iraq, Private Dave Forshaw and Private Peter Mahoney, are known to have killed themselves.
There are fears that the number of suicides could eclipse the 33 British troops killed in the Iraq war itself. Falklands veterans’ groups estimate that 300 men committed suicide due to the 1982 conflict compared with the 258 killed in action.
In the US, the suicide rate among soldiers has reached its highest level since records began almost 30 years ago. Last year, 121 active members of the army took their own lives, up 20 per cent on the previous year.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘Suicide is not endemic in the armed forces. There has been a clear downward trend over the past 20 years.’
Concern continues over the pressures upon the British armed forces of sustaining operations, particularly in Afghanistan. This week ministers will confirm that 16 Air Assault Brigade will be deployed once again to Helmand province later this year.