Is it a compliment to be told that your mental health issues are so complex they’re not easy to treat?
My ‘problems’ aren’t easy to categorise. And as a result, they have not been easy to deal with. As a veteran who served in Northern Ireland, as a reservist in Iraq, a paramedic in London and in counter-terrorism I’ve seen more than my fair share of trauma in my lifetime.
By my own admission, I have sought adrenalin-fuelled roles in my line of work. I have performed emergency cardiac surgery as a paramedic in a pre-hospital trauma team, faced ambush, been held hostage, dealt with daily knife violence on the streets where I’ve had to make critical judgement calls about whether to use lethal force to defend myself.
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As I built up the years of experience going from one hostile environment to another, I didn’t appreciate the accumulative toll this was having on me. I thought I was doing the right things, such as debriefs, and counselling, but it wasn’t enough. That was until a key moment when a bang outside my work car in East London caused me to think I was coming under enemy fire. I had been sitting stationary in a line of traffic when an advertising board outside a pub fell over with an almighty clatter onto the pavement. My reaction wasn’t normal. It triggered a response that was way out of proportion. I couldn’t calm down; my chest was tight, and I couldn’t stop shaking. I saw my GP who prescribed sleep and rest. That was in 2018. What I realised was that I’d been suppressing flashbacks from my time in Northern Ireland for years and adding to them since with more trauma from my work.
I was at the same time physically ill. I had severe headaches and frequent viruses I just couldn’t shake off and I was experiencing poor sleep. The NHS struggled to give me a diagnosis – that was the first time I heard I was a complex case.
I felt I was imploding, and I found accessing services extremely hard. I ended up going to small charities for help and it seemed no one could provide joined-up care. I cannot knock the charities because all the ones I saw were incredibly helpful in their own way; providing talking therapies, access to a sleep clinic and, most of important of all, links with veterans who had also experienced similar PTSD.
Complex shouldn’t mean impossible
That’s why I’m now a patient carer representative at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Quality Network for Veterans’ Mental Health services. It’s introducing new standards to help improve outcomes for veterans by improving quality and by providing consistency across mental health services for veterans.
When I had to stop working, I lost my sense of self-worth because so much of my identity has been wrapped up in my profession. Using my experience to help improve services feels I’m still being of service, “giving back”, and helping other veterans. Although the network is in its infancy it aims to work with those organisations helping people like me across the country through quality improvement, peer, and self-review. The ambition being that there’s uniformity of high-quality care spread evenly through veterans’ services. It works with the NHS, the independent sector, and charities.
I’m not the only veteran who has struggled to get help but putting us in a category marked too complex is unfair and potentially more costly. We need joined-up services that are easy to access across the country, so that complex doesn’t mean impossible.