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

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.

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