A hundred years on from WWI, we still need to do more for our veterans’ mental health

A war memorial in Aberbanc, Ceredigion. Picture by Dawn Faith Worrall (CC 2.0)

Dr. Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for South Wales West

Tomorrow, Sunday 11 November 2018 will mark a hundred years since the First World War came to an end. However, for many veterans and former armed forces personnel, war never really comes to an end.

In 1916, my grandfather was 21, recently married and in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

In the First World War he fought in the battle of the Somme and in Ypres. He was a Dolgellau boy who worked together with the boys of Trawsfynydd in the Great War. They were together on the battlefield and they communicated through the medium of Welsh on foreign fields.

The death of close friends had a severe impact on them all, and ripped the hearts out of wives, mothers and rural communities across Wales.

It broke the pacifist traditions of Welsh nonconformity, and those who rejected conscription on the basis of their faith were prosecuted and ridiculed.

One day, in the heat of battle, my grandfather’s friend from Dolgellau was severely injured – shot while fighting next to him. My grandfather picked his friend up and carried him on his back.

He tried to take him to shelter, but another enemy bullet shot his friend dead whilst he was on my grandfather’s back.

As the battle continued over the bloody fields of Flanders and France, my grandfather was poisoned by the mustard gas. He was among these deadly fumes and his feet rotted as he stood in the water-filled trenches, facing the remains of bodies on the barbed wire.

My grandfather survived, but suffered long-term injuries – injuries that never healed. He barely spoke of his horrific experiences and all the suffering. There was precious little support available for my grandfather at that time. People didn’t talk about the atrocities that they saw.

Risk

Thankfully, things have changed since then and there is now a great deal more understanding.

However, from my experiences as a GP, in my community, dealing with veterans, former members of the RAF, and all those people who have left the armed forces, I know that adjusting to civilian life can be incredibly challenging.

Those people who have been living their lives in the armed forces have been in a very close, disciplined society. Different to the outside world in so many ways, adjusting to a more conventional way of life can seem impossible. There is a great deal of support work that is being done, but, there is much more that we could do.

There are an estimated 5 million veterans in the UK, and a further 20,000 personnel leave the forces each year. Ex-service personnel are vulnerable to social exclusion and homelessness, both of which are risk factors for mental ill health.

Veterans’ mental health problems may be made worse or caused by post-service factors, such as the difficulty in making the transition to civilian life, marital problems, and loss of family and social support networks.

A recent study of 10,000 serving personnel revealed that common mental disorders and alcohol misuse were the most frequently reported mental health problems among UK armed forces personnel. In particular, levels of alcohol misuse overall were substantially higher than in the general population.

4% reported probable post-traumatic stress disorder and younger veterans were noted to be at high risk of suicide in the first two years after leaving service.

One area of concern for us as GPs is that we can’t get hold of the medical details of those who have been members of the armed forces when they come out to us and become members of our society once again.

There is the constant challenge of being able to treat ex-service personnel appropriately on the basis of their medical record which if often very difficult record to get hold of.

How we deal with health issues and mental health issues for those people who have been in service, is incredibly important in creating an equal, fair and even prosperous society.

Plaid Cymru has long championed the development of mental health services in Wales and would look to introduce measures to assist veterans by providing support to health bodies and local authorities to fulfil military covenant.

This could be in particular reference to mental health and substance abuse, physical health, housing issues and welfare support.

This week, we remember those who suffered and died in war and ensure support to those who survive whilst pledging to strive for a world of peace so that our children will never again have to face the horrors of war like the generation of my grandfather.

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