Today marks Armed Forces Day.
Particularly today, it is a good time as any to address the importance of good mental health of those in the military. Mental health is something I have been very close to since my early years where I battled a rather bad case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I began life in the Army in 2001 and then fought in Afghanistan in 2006, 2008-09 and 2010 – at the height of the war-fighting in that conflict. Talking therapy has played a pivotal role in my life in being able to overcome OCD to the point of being able to live a normal life, and dealing with multiple traumatic experiences in Afghanistan.
It’s not a surprise that being in the Army (or indeed afterwards) affects many people’s mental state. The latest numbers and rates of mental disorder among UK Armed Forces personnel assessed at Ministry of Defence Specialist Mental Health services increased from 1.8% in 2007/08 to 3.2 % in 2016/17 – still well below the equivalent cohort in wider-society, but significant nonetheless. The military has come a long way in addressing mental illness. When we started in the early years of Afghanistan, the UK military were caught out by the scale of the fighting and from that inevitably the medical and rehabilitation wings within the military had to catch up. Sometimes this concerned physical injuries; sometimes it was poor mental health. Trauma Risk Management was soon introduced but it wasn’t taken particularly seriously in the units I served within the early years of it – it got much better.
Nowadays the military have shifted to focus on what it means to be healthy, what it means to have resilience to deal with traumatic situations – and therein lies the key going forward, mental resilience and how to maintain good mental health.
The basics around warfare don’t change. Being frightened, having to show courage. For some people it’s the immediate aftermath that is difficult; for some, it’s when you get home. And as we’re now seeing with those who struggle with PTSD, it can arise seven or eight years later. PTSD is a tragic illness that utterly destroys people’s lives. There is a distinct challenge at the moment, however, that some people are self-diagnosing and this can prevent those who are poorly getting access to treatment - because either the system is overloaded or they won’t come forward because they don’t want to be part of a culture that sees PTSD as some sort of badge.
There is a stigma attached to therapy - that it’s just for those who have deep depression or serious mental health needs. This is not the case and I am determined to switch this perception through my work with mental health organisations such as the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
Talking therapy has helped me more than I expected it to. If you feel yourself becoming unwell with a mental health problem, then talking therapy is an effective solution to early intervention. It’s enormously helpful in understanding how your mind works the way it does. And that it’s okay to have a bad day. I still do lots of physical exercise now, not because I’m training for anything but purely for my mental health.
So the key is to seek help early. Don’t be afraid to talk. I have seen talking therapies help some of the most poorly cases of mental ill-health. If you had a physical illness you would seek treatment; to not do so with mental illness makes no sense at all.
Johnny Mercer is the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View