Those who serve in our Armed Forces are by their very nature resilient characters, trained to be robust and self sufficient. These men and women need to be as they protect our national security each and every day. It is essential that they are fit, tough and self confident and it is critical that their training is designed to reinforce this. As a result of the environment they operate in and the culture that they share with their comrades and colleagues on a daily basis, it is perhaps not surprising that asking for help can prove to be a real challenge for some of them.
Nine years ago, SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity set up a confidential helpline, at the request of the Army, as a direct response to the Deepcut tragedies. The Army wanted to ensure that all of those with concerns had someone independent to turn to. In the last year we have seen a significant increase in calls from serving personnel, many relating to mental health issues.
The helpline received 21,983 requests for help last year - a 6% increase on 2014. But the most striking increase was amongst serving personnel, with more than 3,000 calling Forcesline compared to 1,600 the year before.
There are few people who will know our service men and women better than their commanding officers and I vividly remember being able to identify those members of my team who were not functioning at 100% or whose behaviour had shifted, just slightly. However not everyone shows visible signs when they are struggling. Some of the sailors, soldiers and airmen and women who reach out to us, tell us that they are coming to SSAFA rather than their chain of command as they worry that asking for help could be perceived as a sign of weakness. They feel that it goes against what is expected of them or they are letting others down and this is a real concern to us.
Although the Forces have made great strides in their welfare support, the 'grin and bear it' and "just get on with it" attitude within the serving community remains strong. Whilst this can be a real strength in an Armed Force, for some individuals it can be a serious problem.
Thankfully, the dreadful and heart breaking images of dead and injured servicemen and women being repatriated from overseas no longer dominate the front pages. However, let us be quite clear about this - the United Kingdom is still at war and it is imperative that the welfare of our troops remains a priority. Our serving personnel remain exposed to high levels of pressure, unique to their profession, each and every day.
To ensure we have the most robust troops on the frontline, whether that be operating a drone over a war zone from thousands of miles away, physically flying over the skies of Syria or placing boots on the ground in a hostile environment, we must not allow any of our troops to feel that when they need support, they have to deal with their issues alone.
SSAFA is also seeing an increase in the numbers of veterans coming to us for help. A recurring pattern seems to be they come to us when they have reached rock bottom. We are often presented with a complex web of issues that an individual is battling with, which can be very hard for us to unpick. A veteran who had left the Army 21 years ago recently walked into one of our drop in centres with an all too familiar tale. Since his discharge, he had struggled to find employment, he could not keep up with his rent and consequently he and his family had lost their home. His wife had subsequently left him and he had then turned to alcohol and other stimulants which left him s homeless, wrestling with substance abuse issues and without any family support. This downward spiral had not occurred overnight and when SSAFA volunteers asked him why it had taken him so long to ask for help, this proud veteran simply said: 'It's not the Army way.'
It is our strong view that our serving troops and veterans must be encouraged to come forward with their problems as and when they arise. They need to know that it is OK to ask for help - we all need support from time to time.
My experience is that the Armed Forces perform best when working in teams and if a member of the team need a bit of extra help from his or her mates, then that is what happens. At SSAFA we have the same ethos and we will continue to give support to those who are serving, veterans and their families when they most need it. The reason why we do it really is simple - these men and women were there when our country needed them so we will be there for them when they need us.