A British Army Reservist is helping veterans in the criminal justice system by drawing parallels from his own personal experience after a mental health breakdown led to him being arrested for his own safety.
Corporal Ben Nickels was 21 and on his first tour in Northern Ireland when his life flipped upside down. Halfway through the tour, he and his comrades were called back to support another operation in Iraq. While many of his colleagues were excited about the deployment, Ben admits his “emotions were everywhere”. He said:
“Thankfully at the time, my chain of command noticed that there was a problem and I was told by my senior commander at the time … that he didn’t believe I was in the right mind set to go on that training exercise and deploy to Iraq.”
The reservist agrees this was the right decision because it led him on a path to understanding his own mental health. Speaking with BFBS, the Forces Station broadcaster Jade Callaway, he said:
“My mindset wasn’t in the right place and I was assessed by doctors and taken to the Priory Hospital.”
The Priory Hospital employs trained psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and other mental health professionals to provide specialist mental health treatment.
The mental health advocate, who prides himself on supporting others and providing an empathetic ear, had no idea what was happening to him but did know that he felt paranoid about people following him and being “tested”. He felt as though the staff who were looking after him also did not know why he was feeling the way he did.
One day during his treatment, Ben walked out of The Priory which prompted the police to look for him. They eventually found him asleep in a bush and, Ben says, arrested him for his own safety. This is when his treatment started to become more serious. He said:
“I was put in a cell for a couple of days because they needed to put me somewhere secure and that kind of intensified my paranoia because that’s what was happening to me.
"I felt like I was being tested, I felt like I was being followed.
At this point, Ben was taken to a medium secure hospital and held under section two of the mental health act which yet again intensified his paranoia because two people were assigned to follow him 24 hours a day to assess his behaviour. However, Ben now looks back at that unstable time in his life as a positive, saying:
“I’m glad that happened to me because it’s made me more aware of my own mental health and I don’t want that to happen again.”
Looking back, 16 years on, Ben is grateful for the intervention that day. He has not experienced another episode since his recovery. He also managed to continue to serve, receiving two promotions and went on to become an instructor. Ben is now a reservist for the Royal Signals and his passion to help others shows in his choice of civilian career too. He is now the Northamptonshire coordinator for ‘Project Nova’ which supports local veterans who enter the criminal justice system. He said:
“For most veterans, the transition to civilian life is usually successful but unfortunately the transition can be less smooth for some.
“Factors like housing problems, homelessness, debts, health issues, PTSD, drug and alcohol misuse – all these factors can lead to some veterans being at risk of offending.”
Ben describes himself as a mental health advocate with a focus on supporting others in their own journey by providing empathy, parallels from personal experience, advice and guidance. He strongly encourages others to understand how important it is to manage stress levels. He said:
“The majority of mental health issues are related to stress and it affects everybody differently.
“So if you notice in yourself that your behaviour is different or if you notice anybody around you, friends or family, that their behaviour is different do something about it.
“The worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not there and continue as normal because it always catches up with you in the end."
Ben is now looking positively to the future and focusing on helping others who find themselves in the criminal justice system thanks to his work with Project Nova.
If you or someone you know has been affected by the issues covered in this article click here for links to charities that can provide you with expert help and advice.