Monday, 5 Dec 2022

Ex-squaddie calls on Sunak for mental health support for armed forces

Ex soldier runs length of UK's coast for charity Head Up

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A former British serviceman is asking to meet the new Prime Minister to demand legislation that provides adequate mental health support for current and former members of the nation’s armed forces. Paul Minter, who served five tours for his country in the Middle East, is calling on the Government to “financially invest in quality help” for veterans and those coming out of the military.

The ex-squaddie is all too aware of the devastating effect years in the field of conflict can have on the mind: as well as his own battles with paranoia after being caught up in two explosions, in the past seven years he has seen fifteen of his fellow comrades take their own lives.

Spurred on by his experiences, he has now set up his own charity to support them – and broke two world records last month to raise money for it.

With Remembrance Day on the horizon – and many politicians wearing poppies on their lapels – he said the Government “needs to do more” for military personnel, adding: “If they’re going to be supporting it, then they should support it 100 percent – and not just when it suits them.”

A spokesperson for Royal British Legion, which runs the poppy appeal to support veterans and their families, noted: “Our Armed Forces community deserves the best mental health support available and the RBL will continue to push to make sure Governments, at all levels, make this issue a priority.”

In an interview with Express.co.uk this week, Staff Sergeant Minter said that the UK’s armed forces “are growing and getting a lot better with mental health”, but that “there’s still a long way to go”. He said there had been a marked increase in the number of suicides in recent years.

He said he would like to meet with Rishi Sunak, the latest incumbent of Number 10, to ask him “to really put money into it and to not just get the lowest bidder, but actually get the right people to help – people who have experience”.

The former British Army man – who served four tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq in an 18-year career – added: “This should be legislation; it should be something that’s out there and available.”

Colonel Richard Kemp, who spent nearly three decades in the British Army, supported this call, stating: “Anything that can be done to help like that is valuable.” He too believed that mental health provision “is a lot better than in previous years”, but that “there is obviously a great deal more that could be done”.

Having spoken to “hundreds and hundreds” of armed forces personnel and families of those who had sadly taken their own lives, SSgt Minter said the main problem at present was a lack of provision for re-integrating serving members back into the “normality” of society when they are demobilised.

He said: “What the armed forces does is they train you to get ready to go to battle, to go to war – which is what we signed up for; to protect the King and country, to do what’s right, and help the innocent against those who are trying to persecute them.

“To go into a battlefield, to go into war and to see people blown up and to do what you need to do on a battlefield, it’s tough, and you need to be in that mindset. The army and armed forces are very good at getting their soldiers to that point – which is right, so they should do, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

“But what doesn’t happen after that is you’re not brought back down again, you’re kind of just left up there.”

Col Kemp, who commanded a battalion in Afghanistan, said: “This is a problem that’s existed for all time. In the early years of my service, there were people who served under very stressful circumstances in Northern Ireland, and couldn’t really switch off from that environment, either when they were on leave or in particular after they’d left.”

He added: “One minute you’re serving and you are on a high level of alert, you’re often in danger 24 hours a day – and then you leave and you’re in a completely different world.”

SSgt Minter was overcome with paranoia and other symptoms associated with PTSD after coming back from his fourth tour. “It’s just simply because I was going back and forth to the frontline, over the years, and I hadn’t brought myself back down, hadn’t found ways to calm myself down.

“I suffered very badly to the point where I could barely leave the house; I thought people were following me, people were after me. Everyone was talking about me if I was walking down the street, and it was affecting me tremendously.”

Realising he was not well, he got signed off from active duty for a few months by a doctor, and began learning about different forms of therapy and nutrition to help him relax. He said there is currently “not enough teaching to help calm people down and bring them back to peace and back to reality”.

Starting on March 1 this year, and finishing on October 1, SSgt Minter raised around £200,000 for his charity, Head Up, by running 5,000 miles – averaging more than a marathon a day, six days a week. In doing so, he became the first person to run around all of the UK’s coastlines – including Northern Ireland, the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Mann – and the fastest to run around the British Isles.

Laying bare the traumatic circumstances members of the armed forces face in active service, he said in an average seven-month tour of Afghanistan: “You’d have seen probably several of your friends that lost their lives on the on the battlefield, as well as those who have lost limbs or become serious casualties.

“You’ve been shot at thousands or hundreds of times, you would have probably taken the lives of the enemy soldier quite a lot. And you would have been on high alert every single day.

He added: “To go out onto the battlefield and to kill people – and to do this every single day – you […] have to have this certain level of callousness in the mind, just to keep on going. And you have to have a certain level of aggression – controlled aggression, but certainly a level of aggression.

“That, that mindset doesn’t work in the real world, in the civilised world that we live in. You can’t get frustrated. You can’t be on that high level of alertness all the time, otherwise things are going to happen. Things are going to go wrong. And that is exactly what is happening.”

Downing Street did not respond directly to a request for a meeting. In a statement, Johnny Mercer, the Veterans’ Minister, said: “Supporting the mental health of all those who have served in our armed forces is a priority for this Government.

“I encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out. Help is available through Op Courage, which is a specialist NHS mental health service for serving personnel, reservists, armed forces veterans and their families.

“To date, Op Courage has received more than 24,000 referrals and just this year we invested £22 million for veteran-specific mental health services. We will continue to do everything we can to support those who have served in our armed forces.”

Find out more about Head Up and the work they do here.

The Samaritans can be reached round the clock, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need a response immediately, it’s best to call them on the phone. You can reach them by calling 116 123, by emailing [email protected] or by visiting www.samaritans.org.

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