Serving your country can take its toll. Every year a significant number of veterans leave the Armed Forces with mental health problems. In November 2015, Portsmouth Hospitals teamed up with Combat Stress (the leading Veterans' mental health charity in the UK) creating a dedicated team in QA Hospital that specialises in the treatment of Service-related mental health issues, providing veterans with the support they need to recover.
We have spoken to two veterans, Michael and Tim, about how this service has been a lifeline to them.
“I slipped in the kitchen whilst drunk and after spending 15 hours on the floor; my friend found me and took me to QA Hospital’s emergency department. Luckily, I didn’t catch Hypothermia like the last time I was drunk and fell, but I did break my shoulder,” says 64-year-old Michael Potter from Havant.
When people are admitted, the alcohol team will routinely ask the patient if they’re a veteran and if they have any substance misuse issues. If they have, then veterans substance misuse nurse Donna Bowman takes over their care.
“After several days of being in hospital, Donna introduced herself and has worked with me for the past 16 months aiding my recovery.”
Michael says at his worst he would drink ¾ of a bottle of vodka every day for five years, and that his issue with alcohol escalated quicker than he could handle.
“I joined the navy when I was 23 and left aged 45, 22 years later. In hindsight I probably had a drink problem when I was serving, but I only drank on my days off so I could keep it under control. When I left, suddenly I didn’t have a purpose or routine anymore. I felt almost abandoned if I am honest. Having served for 22 years I wasn’t used to life outside of the navy. I soon found myself waking each day and drinking vodka instead of having breakfast.”
Michael says that over the years people have tried to help him, but nothing has worked – until he met Donna that is. “I found that Donna didn’t talk at me, and instead she worked with me,” says Michael.
“I will never forget when Donna drew a picture of my liver and seeing its condition in black and white was like a light-bulb moment for me.”
Donna says it is important to be persistent with the patient so that you can build up a relationship and gain their trust, but when they later have that ‘light-bulb moment’ her job becomes the most rewarding role in the world.
“Alcohol is socially acceptable and normalised in society, so overcoming the demon of drinking is one of the hardest things that you can do, but with Donna’s help I was able to see clearly for the first time. Donna went out of her way to help me – even meeting me for a stroll and chat some days…it is the little things that really make a difference, and I’m sure that’s why on this occasion I really did tur my life around.”
Donna has seen 115 veterans since the scheme started in November 2015, and helps between 30 and 40 veterans any one time.
I joined the navy aged 16 and served for 26 years, covering the 1993 Bosnia War, the Falkland’s and Northern Ireland. I left the navy in 2005.
And was reasonably-well at first, I got a job at the council and started to get used to ‘normal’ living,” says Tim.
“It wasn’t until four years later when I started to have flash-backs of the first Gulf war and in-particular when I had to pick up dead bodies. Before I knew it I was drinking two litres of vodka a day, to the point that I would wake in the early hours of the morning and the only way to go back to sleep would be too drink more vodka…with a 24hour convenience store within walking distance, I was in a bad place.”
Tim says at his worst he was accused (and later acquitted) of stealing within his workplace, and was suspended for two weeks.
“I went to the pub every day that fortnight,” he says. “When I later returned, the drink caused me to have terrible shakes and I struggled to even stand! By lunchtime that day, I decided to walk out of work and found myself stumbling down the street with no purpose….until three miles later and I had unknowingly walked to my GP surgery.
“The receptionist was fantastic and clearly sensed that something was wrong, allowed me to see a GP within 15 minutes. The doctor signed me off work with stress and a few weeks later I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder caused by distressing events.”
Cases of PTSD were first recognised during the First World War when soldiers developed shell-shock as a result of the traumatic conditions in the trenches. But the condition wasn't officially recognised as a mental health condition until 1980.
Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability, guilt; insomnia, depression and anxiety, leaving a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.
“It wasn’t until four months later when I suddenly thought that I had to get a hold of my drink problem, so I decided to go cold-turkey and not drink alcohol. After drinking heavily for so long my body couldn’t handle the withdrawal of alcohol and after just 18hours I had a seizure, leaving me in QA Hospital and in Donna’s care.”
Tim says one of the first-things that Donna said to him was that he was going to die if he continued to drink.
“Donna’s words really hit-home and I knew that I had to change my lifestyle.”
Donna referred Tim to a charity called Alabare, which offers housing and support to ex-Service personnel, helping them to transform their lives through a residential programme.
“Going to the Alabare house for seven months saved my life!” says Tim.
“I was assigned a key worker, received counselling and had a plan of action in place to deal with day-to-day living such as budgeting, healthy eating, shopping, and life skills.
“Since returning home, 10 months ago, Donna has continued to keep in touch and be a support service. Without Donna, Combat Stress and Alabare, I don’t know where I’d be now, so I owe them my life.”