It is well-recognised that serving in the military can bring with it potentially devastating mental as well as physical health consequences. But the Ministry of Defence is working hard to ensure service personnel are well-supported with the tools to manage mental health problems both during and after their service.
MENTAL HEALTH IN THE ARMED FORCES
Long periods of time away from family during service, exposure to high stress situations and trauma, and the difficulty of adjusting between military and civilian life – all can impact on the mental health of serving and ex-serving personnel and their families. These stressors commonly manifest as depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol misuse.
These problems are not unique to the military – they’re common to any of us regardless of where we’re employed. And just like the rest of the population, stigma and lack of awareness around our mental health compared to our physical health is often a barrier to armed forces personnel getting the treatment they need to recover. However, great effort is being invested to empower everyone in the military community to meet these challenges head-on by equipping them with practical mental health first aid skills, and normalising conversation about mental health.
Long gone are the days of fusty old colonels commanding a “pull yourself together” strategy for dealing with anxious and depressed soldiers. Mental health problems can strike anyone, regardless of rank or indeed occupation. And if problems are not recognised quickly and dealt with effectively the consequences can be tragic, as testified by suicide figures for past conflicts in the Falklands and Afghanistan.
THE MENTAL RESILIENCE TRAINING PROGRAMME
Enter the MRT. The Army’s Mental Resilience Training program is delivered as part of the OPSMART package of work. The objective of the training is to give forces personnel useful tools and coping mechanisms to pre-empt and manage a range of mental health problems. The program has its origins in sport and performance psychology and develops a soldier’s psychological capability and capacity to recognise and regulate the signs of stress and to help them prepare for difficult events and circumstances. By helping soldiers to develop effective coping strategies, MRT prepares them for the stressors they’ll face in training, deployment, general military life, and after their service.
“Mental health awareness in the armed forces is growing and is being embraced” says Anthony Carl Gibson, Warrant Officer Class One, Regimental Sergeant Major, “and mental resilience is growing at grass roots now and will only lead to stronger personnel as it develops further.”
THE PILLARS OF MENTAL RESILIENCE
SELF-BELIEF – confidence in your own abilities and judgement
POSITIVE AFFECT – the ability to interact with life in a positive way
EMOTIONAL CONTROL – the ability to understand and express your emotions
MENTAL CONTROL – the ability to control thinking, attention, concentration, focus, self-awareness, reflexivity, problem-solving
SENSE OF PURPOSE – the motivation that drives you forward
COPING – adaptability, natural coping strategies you have learnt through coping in previous stressful situation
SOCIAL SUPPORT – the social network you have and the ways you use it
When it comes to dealing with stress, anxiety and depression, mindfulness techniques such as meditation are less appealing in the military due to their “self-help” connotations. However, there is a strong sense of community in military settings, with many seeing their colleagues as family. This teamwork ethic can be hugely beneficial to service personnel’s mental wellbeing and can help them overcome adversity. So open conversation with colleagues around mental health is actively encouraged outside the dedicated MRT program. “Talking is good, it takes “more” of anyone to speak than to suffer in silence” says Gibson.
It’s good to talk. Mental health conversations aren’t just about the story, they’re about the storyteller. Most military personnel have a story to tell; simply listening to their stories and understanding what has affected them can go a long way towards their recovery. Furthermore, talking provides the opportunity to stop a preventable health issue from escalating by spotting and addressing it early; minimising the impact of mental ill health on work and life.
Another way we can proactively promote mental wellness is ensuring we include enough vitamins and minerals in our diets. Evidence suggests a firm link between physiological and psychological health, so educating personnel about the importance of good nutrition as a contributing factor to mental wellness gives a certain sense of control. Mental resilience training, talking, a higher profile for mental wellness and great nutrition make a formidable tool kit. A tool kit that can help armed forces personnel to cope with challenging situations in a way that minimises adverse psychological effects. Empowered by these tools people can go through their careers, and their lives, knowing there are things they can proactively do to promote mental wellness before it becomes a potentially devastating illness.
FEEL GOOD FACTOR
OPSMART facilitate training events, educating army personnel about mental health, and removing the stigma that in the past has been associated with the need to talk about these issues in the armed forces. FGF has been delighted to support these events, helping soldiers take even more control of their mental wellness by ensuring they feed their body with the right supplements and nutrition to promote healthy minds as well as healthy bodies. “Feel Good Factor encompasses all aspects of mental hygiene from mind, body & nutrition in a can” adds Gibson, who organises these awareness days and training events with OPSMART and encourages his troops to take proactive control of their mental wellbeing, and embrace the tools that are available.