THE 18 local military veterans currently receiving support from the charity dealing with the condition known as combat stress, may only be the tip of the iceberg in the Borders.
The veterans, aged from 37 to 88, are suffering from what is also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and experts believe it may be affecting a great many more local ex-service personnel who feel too ashamed to come forward and seek help.
Combat Stress is also the name of the UK’s leading charity specialising in the treatment of veterans’ mental health. On Monday it marked World Mental Health Day by launching its latest campaign in the Borders to battle the stigma of psychological disorders that prevents many veterans from seeking help.
The fear of discrimination and stigma means that more than one in three of those people don’t even feel able to tell their families about their problems and, on average, veterans wait more than 13 years between leaving the armed forces and seeking help from Combat Stress.
This delay, says the charity, often results in their mental health needs becoming worse – seven of the veterans who made contact with Combat Stress in the past 12 months had waited 40 years or more before coming forward. Nationally, Combat Stress is currently working with more than 4,600 veterans – more than at any time in its history. This includes 583 who served in Iraq and 211 who have served in Afghanistan.
Former commanding officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Colonel Clive Fairweather is now a fundraiser for Combat Stress and attended the nationwide launch of the new campaign in London.
He says combat stress is the modern equivalent of the shellshock cases found among many men who fought in the trenches of the First World War.
“It’s also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it’s exactly the same problem,” Col Fairweather, who was also former deputy commander of the Special Air Service at the time of the Iranian Embassy seige in 1980, told us.
He continued: “We perhaps have not had the same level of physical casualties from conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as in the First World War, but we are seeing the same kind of mental health casualties and we know about five per cent of troops will have this problem.
“There is still a real stigma from this issue which stops people coming forward as early as possible to say they have a problem and need help.
“At the moment, the youngest veteran we are helping is 20 and the oldest 94 – but we have to encourage more veterans to come forward early to prevent their condition becoming a chronic one.
“And we must encourage all those who may know someone who has served in the military and seems to be acting differently, maybe drinking too much, or displaying erractic behaviour, to call the helpline.”
Col Fairweather says many of those with combat stress will become isolated because of their condition.
“And in somewhere like the Borders, where there are pockets of population spread out over large rural areas, such veterans face the double whammy of being isolated because of where they live – without road or rail links to access resources,” he said.
However, Col Fairweather said today’s British Army, including the KOSB’s successor – the Royal Scots Borderers battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland – is much more attuned and sensitive to mental health issues.
Combat Stress’ regional welfare officer in Scotland, Robert Lappin, says every week he meets men and women who have bravely fought for their country but, now battling mental health problems, are too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help.
“The longer they wait the worse they get,” he said. “We estimate there are probably a couple of hundred thousand veterans across Scotland so, yes, I would think just 18 in the Borders receiving help may well be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people suffering from combat stress.
“When people live in tight-knit small communities, like many in the Borders, veterans are reluctant to come forward and admit to having mental health issues because they worry about that information being spread. So they tend to self-isloate themselves or turn to alcohol as a way of coping instead. That’s why I am urging veterans and their loved ones in the Borders to pick up the phone and call our helpline (0800 138 1619 or text 07537 404 719).
“I also appeal to the public to visit the Combat Stress website and sign the pledge to show their support for veterans.”