Ex-Army chief Lord Dannatt says he’s filled with sadness and frustration at the mental health care given to soldiers
To read in this newspaper last week of the tragic death of Warrant Officer Nathan Hunt filled me with sadness and frustration. Not only because the Army has lost a decorated soldier who fought with distinction in Afghanistan, but also because his death reminded me of the failure of the Ministry of Defence to provide adequate mental health care for our brave men and women in the Armed Forces who are still serving.
Nathan Hunt was not a veteran – he was a serving soldier who fought alongside Prince Harry in Helmand province.
It is a shocking and damning statistic that since 1995, more than 400 serving Servicemen and women have taken their own lives – that’s around 20 personnel lost to suicide every year. It may horrify readers to learn therefore that there is no round-the-clock care for vulnerable troops.
Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also on the rise, yet remarkably, specialist mental healthcare for active members of the Forces is only available during office hours. In the evenings, at night and at weekends, vulnerable personnel are expected to call a charity or turn up at their nearest A&E department.
Let me be clear: this level of care falls far short of what our brave troops require. It also represents something of a dereliction of duty by the MoD towards those who defend our country.
I have no difficulty with military veterans requiring help from charities – that has always been the British way – but not serving personnel, surely?
Warrant Officer Nathan Hunt, who fought alongside Prince Harry in Helmand province, took his own life this year
A Government that sends troops into dangerous situations has a clear moral responsibility to look after those who are traumatised by their warzone experiences, certainly while they remain in uniform.
I am sad to admit that my efforts to persuade Ministers to improve mental healthcare for vulnerable personnel have failed so far. That is why now, following the death of WO Hunt, I have joined forces with The Mail on Sunday in a fresh bid to get the MoD to listen.
It is also harrowing to read today in the MoS how other members of WO Hunt’s unit have been left traumatised by their experiences – no surprise given their exposure to enemy fire and the unimaginable stress of searching for Taliban roadside bombs. Their stories echo so many experiences of young men and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
Since 1995, more than 400 serving Servicemen and women have taken their own lives – that’s around 20 personnel lost to suicide every year
Nobody should judge them harshly for struggling to readjust to life back in this country, because they’re conditioned by what they’ve seen, done, smelt and heard. That said, I am convinced that a major reason why these troops are suffering so acutely today is because of the lack of mental healthcare. In recent years, we have made steps forward, but have we done enough?
Last year, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood listened politely to my bid to set up a 24/7 helpline for serving personnel but it was rejected because it would cost £2 million and require the MoD to recruit an extra 40 mental healthcare experts.
Defence officials calculated the helpline would be used by fewer than 50 troops a year so the project was deemed not cost-effective. Needless to say I was very disappointed, because even if only a small number of personnel require this service they should still receive it. If you’re mentally ill you should get the care you need from your employer, whatever the time of day or day of the week. My words fell on cash-strapped ears back then, but I will not back down.
I have raised the issue in the House of Lords. I remain convinced £2 million is not a huge sum when it comes to saving soldiers’ lives, even in these straitened times.
If the MoD can afford to pay for rebranding campaigns, then surely it can afford to look after its traumatised troops. I also don’t want any more Servicemen or women having to wait in an A&E department surrounded by drunks on a Saturday night when they should be able to speak to a military mental healthcare specialist under whose care they are already registered.
We will never know whether WO Hunt would have called a dedicated military helpline for serving personnel, but it should be set up immediately so the next soldier to find themselves in a similar predicament – and sadly that could be very soon – has the option of doing so.
It also makes financial sense to invest in better mental healthcare. Soldiers are expensive to train and too many are leaving too soon – and faster than we can find new recruits.
Prince Harry, fifth right, pictured with his battle group in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in March 2008, with Warrant Officer Nathan Hunt, circled, who took his own life this month
So, having spent a lot of money to teach soldiers the art of modern warfare, we should aim to keep them in the skilled work for which they have been trained. That means enhancing the current level of treating mental health issues as quickly and effectively as possible, before anxiety and depression develop into full-blown PTSD.
It is also important we make these improvements now, when the Forces are presenting themselves publicly as sympathetic towards those who are inclined to be emotional.
Ministers must back up these claims with additional resources. Otherwise those who need an arm around them will find nobody is there.
Taking people into our care is a 24/7 commitment and it should not be outsourced to a charity or the already overburdened NHS, hence the need for a properly staffed and funded crisis helpline. If we are not prepared to look after soldiers while they remain in uniform, ready and willing to deploy to any part of the world to defend Britain’s interests, then who are we willing to care for as a society?
What does it say about us that we are prepared to stand aside as soldier after soldier takes his or her life when we could have intervened and possibly prevented their deaths? There has to be a better way.
I want the Army to continue to ‘Be The Best’ – the slogan much admired by the new Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and now reaffirmed by the Army.
In promoting the excellent campaign of ‘belonging’ within the Army, I hope Mr Williamson will support a 24/7 helpline for serving soldiers and be minded to save lives by improving mental healthcare.
We expect troops to fight anywhere and at any time of the day or night. That means we should look out for their best interests around the clock.