October 5, 2008 – The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that ex-servicemen’s charities have seen a 53% increase in the number of veterans seeking help since 2005, a rate which threatens to “swamp” them within a few years.
The Ministry of Defence’s own figures show that up to 2000 members of the armed services are being diagnosed every year with a psychiatric condition after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Former service personnel who fought in earlier campaigns stretching back to the Second World War are also coming forward for treatment after psychological problems have emerged years, sometimes decades, later.
Those problems include post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), manic depression, mood swings, and drug and alcohol dependency. It has also emerged that up to seven service personnel have committed suicide either during or after active duty in Iraq.
Details of the size of the problem were revealed by a senior MoD official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said: “We are facing an explosion of psychiatric problems not just from serving military personnel but also from those who served in campaigns dating all the way back to the Second World War. It is a huge problem and something which requires a cross-governmental solution.”
The official’s comments were supported by Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare charity, which has seen an increase in the number of referrals of veterans rise by 53 per cent since 2005.
In 2000, the charity saw just 300 new patients who had an average age of 70. So far this year, the charity has seen 1,160 veterans, with an average age of 43. Of those, 217 saw service in Iraq and 38 fought in Afghanistan. The youngest veteran being cared for by the charity is just 20.
Robert Marsh, the director of fund raising for Combat Stress, said his organisation was working at full capacity.
He said: “There is a strong possibility that we face being swamped by new veterans seeking our help. There has been a 53 per cent increase in the number of veterans seeking our help in just three years. Lord knows what we are going to be faced with in five or 10 years time. We need to develop more capacity for the future because we are already creaking.”
The charity, which has three regional treatment centres in the UK – in Surrey, Shropshire and Ayrshire – has 8,490 ex-service personnel on its books of whom around 4000 are currently receiving treatment.
The charity is treating 246 veterans who fought in the Second World War; 57 who fought in Malaya; 128 who were based in Aden; and around 2000 who served in Northern Ireland.
But it is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are likely to produce the most psychiatric casualties over the next few years.
The Iraq War developed into a bitter insurgency in which dozens of soldiers were killed and hundreds were maimed by improvised explosive devices. The war in Afghanistan is now regarded as the bloodiest campaign since Korea.
The latest government figures available show that for the first nine months of 2007, more than 1500 servicemen and women who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder – a rate of 2000 a year. Personnel who are posted to Afghanistan are 14 times more likely to develop PTSD than those who do not deploy.
But the MoD’s own analysis warns that its figures might be hiding the true extent of the problem because of the social stigma associated with mental illness.
Liam Fox, the Tory shadow defence secretary, said: “We are seeing an increasing number of veterans coming forward with mental health problems because of the stresses they faced in places like Northern Ireland and the first Gulf War – this was entirely predictable. But what is absolutely tragic is the fact that these same veterans have been abandoned to their fait by this government.”
The military has gone to great lengths to diagnose psychiatric disorders amongst troops. Serving personnel have access to 15 community mental health centres across the country which provide psychiatric out-patient care. Those troops requiring in-patient care are treated at The Priory, which has centres across the UK. Troops also have access to in-service psychiatrists. Junior commanders are trained to recognize the symptoms of psychological trauma at an early stage.
A spokesman for the MoD, said: “Counselling is available to Service Personnel and troops receive pre and post deployment briefings to help recognise the signs of stress disorders. We recognise that operational deployments can be stressful experiences, so we offer individuals briefing prior to returning to their home base. ‘Decompression periods’ at the home base or in places such as Cyprus are in place for personnel to unwind mentally and physically and talk to colleagues about their experiences in theatre. The families of returning personnel are also offered presentations and leaflets about the possible after-affects of an operational deployment.”
Last month it emerged that one in ten of the British prison population was a former member of the armed services. The revelation led to calls for greater welfare improvements for veterans.