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Why aren't enough UK Armed Forces personnel seeking help for mental health problems? Marie-Louise Sharp

Why aren't enough UK Armed Forces personnel seeking help for mental health problems?

Posted on February 28, 2017

I’ve worked with the Armed Forces community for many years, both in military help-seeking research at the King’s Centre of Military Health Research and in healthcare policy at the Royal British Legion. I was fortunate enough last year to be a Forces in Mind Trust Fellow on Clore Social Leadership’s Fellowship Programme.

An area I care very deeply about is the mental health of our Armed Forces community. We live in a stressful world, there is no doubt. The World Health Organisation reports that mental health and substance misuse problems are the leading cause of disability worldwide, and one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime.

In the UK Armed Forces community, the most common mental health problems are depression and anxiety. Most recent research suggests these may be experienced by Service and ex-Service personnel at double the rates of those in the general population. Despite much effort to improve service provision and mental health attitudes by the Ministry of Defence, the NHS and Service charities, help-seeking rates in the Armed Forces community continue to remain extremely low.

My provocation piece asks us to rethink our conceptions of mental health and help-seeking in the Armed Forces. The piece begins with an imagined character in the Armed Forces giving advice through a letter to those struggling with mental health problems. Whilst this letter is my creation and exaggerated for effect, it is based on some real views I have had recounted to me in my research interviews with the Armed Forces community. The language in the letter seeks to highlight some very important issues that prevent individuals from seeking help for mental health problems in the Armed Forces.

I highlight the main barriers to seeking help for mental health problems in the Armed Forces.  These include mental health stigma, the preference to solve problems alone, a lack of social or family support, and finally the pervading culture of masculinity that equates help-seeking with weakness.

In terms of what can be done to address these barriers, I suggest that:  

  1. We need to get talking about our mental health to one another and to our families;

  2. We need to educate ourselves on how to look after our own mental health, how to spot signs and symptoms of mental ill health and know what services are available that can support us;

  3. We need to challenge the weakness culture. We cannot continue to uphold the notion that seeking help is akin to failure. True courage is found in honesty, in facing up to problems, taking action to help ourselves and being strong through support found in others.

Our significance as leaders is measured by the courage of the questions we ask in order to confront and change negative cultures and attitudes that should not be promoted in our communities. The barriers and cultures that prevent Armed Forces individuals, past and present, from seeking help is a problem that all people in the Armed Forces community can take a stand upon and demonstrate leadership in promoting the type of environment we want to live in. It is time we changed the conversation and refuse to accept the state of things as they are now. I believe changing the culture around help-seeking for mental health problems in the Armed Forces will need all of our combined strength and leadership.

You can download Marie-Louise Sharp’s provocation piece here.

Please share your views and comments below, or you can contact Marie-Louise on Twitter.

View / hide 5 comments

An excellent piece Marie-Louise. It really highlights the issues along with giving some practicial tips. One of our Community Links Practitioners met an 11 year old girl whose family broke down (resulting in the death of both parents) as a result of the father stuggling to cope with civilian life. These stories are far too many. You can read Jane's poem heer http://links.alliance-scotland.org.uk/2015/10/life-without-mummy-and-daddy/ but be warned, it's a hard read. Thank you for such a thought provoking and creatively written paper. 

> Posted by Mark Kelvin on 28 Feb 2017 at 10:30

Marie-Louise, I think this very fair and of course the problems of stigma surrounding mental health are in society generally and especially in men and in younger men particularly.  I still think that the paper by Corrigan (http://www.academia.cat/files/425-8237-DOCUMENT/Howstigmainterfereswithmentalhealthcare.pdf) stands up although it is now over 13 years old.  Whilst I was still serving in the military we did look to reduce the barriers to getting help and this work has continued.  However there remains a big difference between the perceptions that abound regarding the support that a patient who might (for example) have broken a leg and require several months off sick, to the person who has suffered mental health trauma and requires help for the same period.  There is also a perceptional difference between how these two patients might be perceived in terms of ongoing long-term help.  However to be positive, my sense is that over years the problems of stigma have reduced, but there is still a long way to go...  Thank you for writing your piece. 

> Posted by Jonathan Leach on 3 Mar 2017 at 08:50

How about those that do try and get help!!! 4 months and still no actual help just drugs. DCMH can't cope with the numbers of personnel now seeking help! The system is an absolute joke 

> Posted by Mickey on 5 Mar 2017 at 14:55

How about those that do try and get help!!! 4 months and still no actual help just drugs. DCMH can't cope with the numbers of personnel now seeking help! The system is an absolute joke 

> Posted by Mickey on 6 Mar 2017 at 06:48

A very thought provoking piece. Very interested to see future around this area.

> Posted by Ibrahim Ismail on 7 Mar 2017 at 14:08

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Marie-Louise Sharp

Marie-Louise Sharp

Charity Armed Forces Health Policy Adviser

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