The number of Afghanistan veterans seeking help for mental health problems surged in 2013 and is likely to peak again this year as the British military ends its 13-year conflict in the country, according to new figures published on Monday. There was a 57%increase in the number of ex-military personnel needing treatment from the charity Combat Stress, which had a record 358 Afghanistan-related referrals last year, compared with 228 in 2012. The number of Iraq veterans needing help also rose by nearly 20%, even though British troops ended combat operations in the country five years ago, and left altogether in 2011.
Commodore Andrew Cameron, chief executive of Combat Stress, added that he expected the numbers to further increase over the coming years and the UK had to prepare for the escalation. Most mental health issues take time to emerge, and armed forces veterans are often unwilling to admit they need help.
"These statistics show that, although the Iraq war ended in 2011 and troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan later this year, a significant number of veterans who serve in the armed forces continue to relive the horrors they experienced on the frontline or during their time in the armed forces," Cameron said. "Day in, day out, they battle these hidden psychological wounds, often tearing families apart in the process."
Even now, Combat Stress is taking on new cases from veterans who fought in conflicts from an earlier generation, such as the Malayan Emergency, which ended in 1960, and the 1982 Falklands war.
But the vast majority of its current caseload of 5,400 patients comprises veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, with sharp rises in referrals from all three in recent years.
Cameron said that one-fifth of all veterans were likely to need help for some form of mental illness and that it could take more than a decade before symptoms presented themselves. With demand for our services already rising, Combat Stress faces a real challenge. We are planning for services at or above the current level for at least the next five years, and we do not expect to see demand for support tail off in the near future," he said.
Combat Stress compiled the statistics to mark its 95th anniversary. It has worked with veterans of every conflict since the second world war, and has found that, on average, servicemen and women wait 13 years after leaving the military before seeking help. It has supported 20,326 veterans, including soldiers, sailors and air crews who fought in Aden, Korea and the Iran-Iraq war. It estimates that 42,000 UK troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan may develop a mental health condition over the coming decades.
The charity has treated 1,300 Afghanistan veterans so far and has 662 in its care. It has received 1,968 cases involving Iraq veterans and is treating 806.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff when British forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: "There is no doubt that combat, whether in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf war 90-91, Bosnia, and elsewhere, has always produced psychiatric casualties, just as it produced 'shell shock' in the first world war. Our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will produce a sharp upturn in such psychiatric casualties. It needed to be recognised that there were too many former combatants who ended up in jail as murderers, or as suicide victims.”