Mental health is an important issue in all communities, including the Armed Forces.  Although my office doesn’t provide a welfare or crisis service, many of the individuals who contact us are currently experiencing, or have previously experienced, a mental health problem.  As it is World Mental Health Day, I thought it only appropriate that my blog for this fortnight focus on this issue.

As the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces my role is to provide independent and impartial scrutiny of the handling of Service complaints made by members of the UK Armed Forces.  It is a very specific role.  I help people access the complaints system, I report on the operation of that system, and I review decisions and investigate matters in line with my powers. My office doesn’t provide a support service and my team does not include Social Workers.  However, they are dealing with the issue of mental health on a daily basis as it is an issue that affects many of the individuals who contact my office.

When a new case is logged by my office a number of details about the individual who has contacted us are recorded.  Whether they have ever experienced mental ill-health is not one of those details.  As a result I can’t tell you the percentage of people who have contacted my office who also have a history of mental health issues of any kind, but there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that further consideration needs to be given to the issue of mental health in the context of Service complaints.

On any given day individuals will be contacting my office that also self-report having a condition, have a formal diagnosis or are simply displaying behaviours that are a cause for concern among my team.  Broadly speaking they tend to fall into one of two categories:

1 – Current or former Service personnel who are experiencing, or have previously experienced mental ill-health and also have a Service complaint; or

2 – Current or former Service personnel who have become unwell, or had a condition exacerbated, through the stress of dealing with a Service complaint they have made, or that has been made about them.

The impact of the process can vary between these two groups.  Those in the former group may need reasonable adjustments made to facilitate interviews, need the process put on hold for a period of time if they are too unwell to deal with their complaint, or be directed to an organisation that may be able to provide assistance.  Those in the latter group might have those same needs but their experiences also highlight the damaging effect created by the frequently slow progress and cumbersome nature of the old process and clearly demonstrate why there must be a complaints system that is efficient, effective and fair for all Service personnel.

What individuals in both groups have in common is the need for understanding. If mental health is not understood we can’t respond to individuals in an appropriate way and we will never be able to break down the stigma surrounding an issue that affects us all. That is why I have made it compulsory for all of my frontline staff, including my investigators, to undertake Mental Health First Aid for the Armed Forces Training (MHFA-AF).

The two day course doesn’t teach someone to be a therapist or social worker – but it provides a solid understanding of mental health and specifically mental health within the Armed Forces community. As the training is developed and accredited by Mental Health First Aid England I have confidence that it is the best possible training on this topic for my team and that it properly equips them with the knowledge they need to deal with the issues they are faced with on a daily basis.  To that end I thank those personnel in the Army who ensure that MHFA-AF training courses run in London are open to members of my team wherever possible.

Of course ensuring that all of my staff have the requisite training is only the first step.  The second is to ensure that my office is alive to any trends or issues associated with mental health and Service complaints. While I am unable to pre-empt what these trends may be, I can assure you that mental health is an issue is that is taken seriously within my office and will be for my entire 5yr term.