General Sir Patrick Sanders
Mental Health

'You're not being judged': Senior Army officer on mental health struggles

General Sir Patrick Sanders

A senior British Army officer has opened up about how his experiences leading soldiers in combat situations left him feeling suicidal and drinking alone in the middle of the night.

Now, General Sir Patrick Sanders is encouraging other personnel to speak up about their own experiences.

Gen Sanders has shared details of his ongoing struggles with mental health as part of the Army's latest efforts to give its members the confidence to speak about their own issues.

As part of this year’s Time to Talk Day 2021, the service has been promoting its own conversations about mental health in an effort to help end the associated stigma.

Gen Sanders has had a distinguished career, commanding at company, battalion, brigade, and divisional level, including on operations in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

In an interview published on the British Army's Twitter page, the general revealed his own struggles with mental health at different points in his career, as he tried to cope with some of his first-hand experiences.

Now holding the position of Commander at Joint Forces Command, the officer spoke frankly about his previous bouts of depression.

"I had a period of time where I suffered from, I mean, I don’t know what label you would put on it, but I was not myself," he said.

"I was depressed, I was low, there were periods of time where I had suicidal thoughts and it took me a good chunk of time to begin to come back from that on the back of a very violent tour."

Reflecting on his coping mechanisms, Gen Sanders explained how easy it is to fall into unhealthy habits. 

"I found myself obsessing about experiences on the tour, dwelling too much on photographs, on video clips, on letters. Replaying in my mind what had happened.

"I was drawn back down into the experiences on that tour and the memories from it. 

"But in a way that was dark and obsessive, it wasn't positive and constructive, and those weren’t conversations I was having with other people they were conversations that were going on in my own head, and I closed down.

"I didn’t talk to anybody about it.

"And then, because they would take me into a dark place, I would try to create opportunities to be on my own. 

"I would sit up late at night drinking. I wasn’t doing the sort of physical exercise that I needed to," he continued.

"I certainly wasn’t particularly eating well or healthily, and I was throwing myself almost completely into work because that was a useful distraction. 

"If I wasn’t at work, I was just obsessing about the memories and the feelings that I had."

Culminating in heavier drinking, the general said it was when he noticed he was regularly sitting alone with a drink in the early hours of the morning, that he realised he needed help.

"It started with conversations with friends," he said.

"Friends in the Army who’d had different experiences but could contextualise what I had been through and they were sympathetic.

"Suddenly, that's like a lifeline when you hear that you’re not being judged, that people understand that all isn’t well. That their opinion of you doesn’t change.

"They’re still a friend. They still respect you professionally for what you are but they are just showing a bit of human kindness and sympathy and empathy.

"That gives you confidence to begin to lift your eyes up."

He says he wanted to use his experience to help others and stressed that dealing with the problems plaguing you is just as important regardless of the cause.

"Whether it’s a sort of violence that I went through on operations but equally [it could] be something in your personal life and it’s very often the combination of things that come together that create it.”

Ultimately, Gen Sanders advises a focus on getting the smaller, more easily controlled, things right to address the larger problems.

"It’s about normal conversations with people about it. It’s about getting the basics right.

"About making sure you sleep properly, that your diet is healthy and probably most of all is that you’ve got a really good fitness regime. It just fundamentally changes your outlook."

Cover image: MOD.