Welfare and Wellbeing
As the feature writer for Army&You magazine, I write about a range of issues affecting military families including mental health. The lifestyle can be an endurance test for spouses as much as serving personnel.
Well, you must have known what you were letting yourself in for when you married a soldier.” How many times have you heard that old chestnut? People have no idea what a culture shock it can be.
Army spouse Katie Mills recalled: “I was not prepared, and my mind was in turmoil. I didn’t understand the lingo and had so many questions. The worst part is when your partner is away and you’re staring at the blank walls of your new home trying to comprehend the world you’re now part of.”
Practical information is often easy to access by asking a neighbour, reading a hand-out or popping into the HIVE. Other concerns are more personal, as AFF’s Wiltshire Co-ordinator Carol Morris explained: “There’s a sense of the unknown. Will I make new friends? Can we cope on one wage until I find a job? Some find the lifestyle claustrophobic and feel that everyone on the patch knows their business.”
For 18-year-old Anastasia Cuthbertson, the first posting a long way from home has been hard. She said: “I gave up my education so we could be together as a family. It has been character-building, but I can’t finish my studies because of the cost of childcare.” Anastasia relies on her local friends for guidance, which is very common according to Carol: “The majority of young spouses will ask someone they met at the school gate or at a coffee morning and some may post on social media. Sometimes they don’t have the confidence to approach their welfare team or don’t want to be seen as a welfare case.”
The charity Home-Start has a long record of working with Forces families in the UK, Germany and Cyprus. A trained volunteer can visit your home for two hours a week. Shelagh Chapman said: “Loneliness, physical and mental health issues, addictions and abuse can impact parents’ capacity to provide support for their children. For Army families these issues are further exacerbated by the additional pressures of enforced separation.”
As a unit welfare officer, Capt Stuart O’Hagan recognises the isolation some spouses experience and the need to create strong communities where neighbours help each other out. He encourages families to come forward: “Many are reluctant to seek help until it may be too late or require more effort to resolve an issue that has escalated.”
When Ellie Wolf discovered her father only had days to live, her patch friends rallied to look after her cat while she was away. She said: “It took a massive burden off my shoulders at a stressful time and it’s this sort of care that you don’t always get on civvy street. The Army were amazing at getting my husband back from the Middle East within 24-hours so that I had him by my side.”
To maintain your own wellbeing, AFF Health Specialist Karen Ross advised: “Keep yourself physically well, eat well and rest well. Keep in touch with family and friends using Skype or FaceTime and if you’re feeling down speak to someone you trust. If low mood persists it is important to see a medical professional.”
Spouses and soldiers can self-refer to The Warrior Programme, a free coaching course that empowers participants by increasing their emotional resilience and self-esteem.
Joining a sports club or taking up a new hobby can also boost confidence. Vicki Booth suffered with anxiety and depression until she plucked up the courage to go along to Military Wives Choir in Dishforth. She said: “It saved my mental health and has given me my life back. I am no longer just a wife and mother. My choir friends are like sisters.”
Researchers on the Helping Armed Forces Loved Ones (HALO) study are inviting relatives who are worried about the mental health of a veteran or soldier to complete a survey to help them develop skills training for Forces families. Co-ordinator Marc Archer said: “While there is still stigma around mental health, this isn’t necessarily the reason why people don’t seek help. It’s not always easy to know if the behaviours we worry about are indicators of a disorder that needs outside help.”
When Emma Senior’s husband Jase returned from Afghanistan, he avoided socialising and was restless at night. She said: “As I’m a nurse I tried to help him, thinking together we could work through it, but I soon realised I couldn’t do it on my own. It was lonely, and I felt helpless.” Emma convinced Jase to seek medical help and, after diagnosis and treatment, he continues to serve in the Army. She has started a project collecting partners’ experiences of living with a serving person with a mental health illness.
Recognising the signs that someone needs support is part of the Mental Health First Aid course that Carol Morris and AFF colleagues completed. She said: “A conversation with a spouse may be about a dripping tap in their SFA, but once they start opening up, I’m able to distinguish those that need help and then I can signpost them.”
In future all serving personnel will undertake mental health awareness training. Senior health adviser Maj Pauline Murray-Knight said: “We need to reduce stigma surrounding mental ill health whilst embedding the concept of mental fitness for all. We can all make a difference by listening and responding in a supportive and non-judgemental manner.”
Now accustomed to Army life, Katie Mills advises others struggling to cope: “It’s a glorious community and I am grateful for the support I received so don’t be afraid to ask for help. There will always be someone there to lend a hand until you can stand alone.”