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By Ruth Sutherland, Samaritans' Chief Executive
Life in the military has its own unique challenges. However, viewed from the outside, people tend to think about battlefield and more extreme scenarios as causing the most problems, when everyday pressures can also have an impact.
Samaritans has interviewed a number of people about their experience of serving, past and present. They explained how some elements of service life can have a more subtle, but none the less significant, impact on people’s lives and mental health.
The key thing is making sure people are aware of where to go for support before events reach a crisis, without fear of stigma attaching to them if they seek help.
The charity developed its support programme, aimed at those serving, veterans, reservists and their families, after consultation with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), military charities, medical practitioners and other experts in the field.
It was also informed by more than 60 years of our volunteers’ experience of dealing with people struggling to cope.
A number of Samaritans volunteers are also serving men and women. This gives them a valuable insight into military life. We aim to encourage more service personnel and their families to become volunteers and to train our existing volunteers so that they know more about military culture and its attendant pressures.
The recently-launched Pocket Guide, which was developed with the MoD, has been distributed to around 200,000 people serving, and highlights how to spot people struggling to cope, suggests ways to support colleagues, and signposts to sources of support.
The charity will be rolling out peer support training, instant messaging and webchat, which will allow those serving anywhere in the world to access help. Samaritans branches are attending Veterans Outreach events around the country.
One issue that comes up regularly is postings away from family and friends. People may be separated for six months or more on tour, which puts pressure on relationships and can trigger feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Frequent moves can add stress to family life. One serving Samaritans volunteer said that “someone who is serving can be away for six months at a time.
"The family arrive at their posting, the serving officer goes off somewhere else, and the family are left with no support network and without their partner.”
Those interviewed agreed there is a closer and a different companionship in the services.
“People rely on their colleagues in a different way to people in ordinary jobs, you might need them to save your life,”
said a serving officer who is also a Samaritans volunteer.
“There used to be a stigma about seeking support outside the service. It can be a very closed community and you trust people deeply,” said a Samaritans volunteer who has served more than 30 years in the military.
He believes that emotional support, such as the service provided by Samaritans, should be more widely available.
He added: “Things have changed in the last five years, the Army accept looking after people’s mental health is part of their duty of care. But there are still people who will be hard to reach.”
Liam, 24, who is in the Navy, said that moving around frequently can be challenging. As he was older when he joined up, he thought it was not as difficult for him as it was for younger recruits of 18 who had just left home.
It could also be more difficult to sustain relationships, and he had felt the effects of that in his own personal life, he said.
A woman officer, who leads a unit, said: “Stigma is now massively reduced, but still exists with senior NCOs and officers.” She added that a few people would seek help privately because they can be anonymous.
After a difficult tour where she was trying to support others, she discovered she needed help herself. After overcoming her strong initial resistance to seeking help, she said: “I am a much better and stronger person, and more able to identify and sense difficulties in other people.”
Once it is fully up and running, Samaritans’ military programme aims to provide emotional support for those serving, veterans, reservists and their families at all levels, and to offer a variety of ways to access help which will reach as many people as possible.
Anyone can contact Samaritans any time for free from any phone on 116 123. This number will not show up on your phone bill. Alternatively, email [email protected] or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of your local branch where you can talk to one of our trained volunteers face to face.