From despair to hope: How veterans can contribute to the cultivation of mental fitness in society and the workplace.
We are increasingly seeing a demand for politicians and employers to deliver on pledges to transform attitudes to mental health, with a particular emphasis on the workplace. Some of Britain’s biggest employers are pressing the government to honour a promise to give mental health the same status as physical health at work.
This is clearly the right thing to do for humane purposes but there is also a business case for it. A government-commissioned review put the cost of those conditions, such as depression, anxiety or stress, to the economy at between £74bn and £99bn a year.
It appears that we are now in between phases in the dialogue on mental health; the battle for recognition has largely been won. We are now faced with the task of embedding acceptance and providing meaningful support, which starts with ratifying the parity of physical and mental health into law and commercial best practice.
I was lucky in my own experiences of trauma, in that I suffered both physical and psychological injuries in Afghanistan. The Army and I were good at recognising the physical injuries that I sustained – the damage to my foot was more obvious than that to my brain – and they gave me a reason to be excused from the battlefield and meant that compensation and insurance claims were relatively easy to settle. A degree of financial security gave me the space in which to deal with my problems in the time that I needed, rather than having to try and hold own a job at the same time.
However, it was only when I began to look at my psychological injuries in the same way as my physical injuries that I gave myself permission to recover; I refused to let well-meaning awkwardness become my shame. I began to talk about my mental health unashamedly and in a matter of fact way and encouraged others in the same boat to do likewise. I acknowledged that I needed to treat mental fitness in the same way as physical fitness; a goal that could only be realised through hard work and practice.
It gradually became easier, to the point that it became normalised in my own mind. This is not an easy thing to do if you feel like you are the only one suffering. The shroud of poor mental health can play games with your mind to the point where it only serves to prolong the feelings of isolation. Along with clinical treatment, shared stories, mutual support and fellowship in adversity are vital on the road to recovery.
My own experience has suggested that those in need of help often respond best to others who have been through a similar experience. The only way in which I was able to extricate myself was through the process of mentoring; being held to account by others, being challenged as to why I was acting and thinking in certain ways and considering whether my decisions were serving me and my family.
Whilst serving in Belfast, I had the privilege of receiving therapy from Dr Michael Paterson, who lost both his arms and sustained serious leg injuries as the Land Rover he was travelling in through west Belfast in 1982 came under rocket-propelled grenade attack. The fact that I could see that his injuries had not held him back was wonderfully inspiring and hugely motivational. Likewise, I have mentored other soldiers who tell me that hearing about my journey and any insights that I have picked up along the way has served as a light at the end of the tunnel. Whilst there will clearly always be a need for medical experts, the way forward must include peer-to-peer mentoring.
After the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we owe to it ourselves as a society to learn the psychological lessons of these conflicts. Whilst strategic and tactical lessons will have been identified and incorporated into doctrinal publications for another generation to ignore and the corporate experience of thousands of patrols, firefights and defensive actions is slowly ebbing away, there is no excuse for forgetting what we have learned about the human mind and how it reacts to adversity.
Whilst the experiences of soldiers are increasingly unique in society, we do not distance ourselves from the rest of the population and perpetuate a sense of “them and us”. By acknowledging that psychological trauma is not peculiar to the armed forces, we can use our experiences to contribute meaningfully to the wider dialogue and put our lessons of developing resilience to good use.
Remembrance is about reflection and commemoration, but it can also be an active undertaking; I believe that we owe it to the memory of those who did not come home – and perhaps more so to those who did come home and could not cope with the memories of what they had seen – to contribute to the wider de-stigmatisation of mental illness amongst everyone, to normalise these experiences for the next generation and to offer hope to the those currently in need.
Now is a time of opportunity. Now is the time for those effected to contribute to and influence the narrative, to show that they are not victims and that with the right intervention at the right time by the right people, there can be a sense of optimism for the future. Determined, capable and dedicated men and women from all walks of life can continue to achieve their potential and re-establish normality, going on to serve as examples of hope to others; perhaps the most crucial element of leadership.
We are well-placed to take our experiences from the battlefield and beyond, and apply them in wider society by working to build resilience and embed it by helping to grow mental fitness across society.
At The Eleos Partnership, we use the hard-won insights from our own challenges to cultivate mental fitness in individuals and organisations. If you think that your team would benefit from working with us to improve performance through building resilience, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.eleospartnership.com