Liam Fox’s announcement that there will be a special 24-hour helpline for soldiers, and his promise of more mental health nurses for servicemen and women is very welcome indeed, given that this has allegedly been barely increased at all since the war in Iraq began. But war is not the only cause of mental illness.
The study, and the immediate policy action that followed addressing the sad reality of mental illness in our returning troops is a laudable step. After all, it’s been widely reported that 1 in 20 service men and women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, and 1 in 4 returning soldiers have other serious mental health issues. It’s disgraceful for a government to find the money to send troops into battle but not to give them the support they deserve and need when they get back.
But while this development is excellent news, the new support services are being targeted at just one group of sufferers. 1 in 4 returning soldiers experience mental illness; 1 in 5 members of the general public experience mental illness.
No-one wants to diminish the severity of the army experience, or the brave contribution our soldiers make. But it is far from the only, or even the most common, cause of psychological distress.
Here are just two examples. Abuse victims, and the homeless. Both are cited by MIND as key factors in causing mental illness.
For example, Counselling Directory say that 20% of women who have been sexually abused suffer long-term mental health problems, while 13% of all child abuse victims are “permanently damaged” by resultant impairments to their mental health (compared with 6.3% of people who are not victims of abuse). Counselling Directory also cite several studies which have shown that nearly 50% of people hospitalised with a mental illness have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, homelessness charity Shelter have identified direct links between poor quality housing, and homelessness, and mental health. Housing problems are “frequently” given as a specific factor in why hospitalisation occurs. Homelessness is often both a result of, and a cause of, poor mental health – and there are currently, before job losses and cuts have even started to hit, around one million homeless people in the UK. In 2008, a survey of experts conducted by St Mungos found that 59% expected to see a surge in homelessness as a result of the recession.
The extra support for returning troops is not only welcome, but necessary. But it is a small – and selective – first step in tackling the enormous shadow of mental illness in the UK.