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  1. ITV Report

Campaigners meet veterans' minister Johnny Mercer to demand action on mental health, suicides and compensation

Campaigners have held their first meeting with Johnny Mercer, new Veterans' Minister. Credit: ITV News

A group of campaigners has held inaugural talks with new veterans' minister Johnny Mercer to see if he can really make at difference to those suffering after serving their country.

Mr Mercer met people representing veterans rights including mental health wellbeing and coping with post-traumatic stress and suicide prevention organisations as well as their families.

Nick Wilson, CEO of 360 Wellbeing, said: "It was an emotive meeting, which highlighted the requirement for more 'effective' communication between the new office and organisations such as ourselves.

"It also demonstrated the disconnect between theory, as in what their advisers put in place for mental health, and the reality of what is really happening, as veterans, partners and families are not receiving the support they should.

"That being said, it was positive to hear about new mental health initiatives that will be getting rolled out for when military personnel transition back into society. Let's see what happens, its certainly a step forward and I will take that for now."

Trevor Coult, a veteran of army tours to Iraq and Afghanistan who arranged this meeting, has spoken in the past of his bitterness at being medically discharged and subsequent PTSD diagnosis.

The Military Cross holder told ITV News ahead of the meeting: "I've got high hopes for Johnny Mercer and his team to achieve a lot of things which have been causing misery."

Mr Mercer, himself a veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was appointed to the new role in the Veterans' Affairs office by Boris Johnson.

He told ITV News earlier this month that he was determined to provide those who have served the country with the "best mental health care in the world”.

Jim Wilde, of Veterans United Against Suicide, is one of the groups collating figures of the numbers of former service personnel who take their own lives.

He said they had had dealings with the previous two incumbents in the defence ministry without much tangible progress.

After speaking to Mr Mercer, he said: "Sadly, it took two years to get a meeting to address key veterans issues, and we barely scratched the surface."

Another area of concern is war widows pensions.

Entitlement is hugely complicated, depending on when the deceased (man or woman) served and when.

Those whose late husband or wife served before April 2005 qualify for a pension, those whose spouse served later qualify through the armed forces compensation scheme.

The issue is further complicated if the widow or widower remarried before 2015 and have lost their pension as a result. Should they now be divorced or their new partner has since died, they may be entitled to get the pension again.

Mary Moreland, chair of the War Widows' Association, described the situation as an "injustice".

Ms Moreland said she was encouraged by the meeting.

"The minister was very engaged. He was very aware of what I wanted, very aware of the issues," she told ITV News. "It is ludicrous that his has not been solved yet.

"I've came away reasonably positive, but then again I've been here before."

The issue of mental health among veterans has been a hot topic for politicians and the public.

An ITV study, working with veterans' groups, found more than 80 veterans and serving personnel took their own lives in 2018, while estimated suicide figures for this year stand at almost 50 - that is more than one a week.

The research compiled with the help of Veterans United Against Suicide last year found more than one third who took their own lives in 2018, and whose details are known, had suffered from PTSD - an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.

Mr Mercer told ITV News: "I am determined to get the mental health care piece, whether it's in the veterans community, or the military or indeed in the NHS, to a place were we can offer those who have served in this country the best mental health care in the world.”

Chris Murphy, CEO Dunster House Ltd, says that fathers being denied access to their children as a result of divorce or separation is a major contributor to suicides of veterans as indeed to non-veterans.

He said: "I left a briefing with the Minister and asked him to read it as the time allocated to the five members of the people who went to visit him was very short, about one hour... So I requested the Minister and the two members of his staff to read my thoughts.

"Hopefully this will happen, but in the meantime I shall carry on with my help to veterans."

Steve Bentham-Bates, CEO of Help 4 Homeless Veterans said: "I met the Veterans Minister today along with other leaders of ex-services groups.

"I thanked the minister for his time and asked him to look into asking the Government department responsible for housing and local authorities to review their practices to enable more vulnerable veterans facing homelessness to receive faster help so charities such as ours don't have to spend so much on emergency B&Bs."

Minister for Defence People and Veterans Johnny Mercer said: “Veterans groups contribute a huge amount to society and I was pleased to meet with these organisations today.

“We discussed this Government’s commitment to veterans support, including the recent establishment of the Office for Veterans Affairs and their ideas and hopes for this area.

“I look forward to continuing this discussion as we further drive forward these important issues.”

What to do if you or someone you know needs help:

  • If you are in distress or need some support, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123 or through their website.
  • Combat Stress is available 24 hours a day on 0800 138 1619 for veterans and their families, 0800 323 444 for serving personnel and their families, via text on 07537 404719, or through their website.
  • SSAFA is available on 0800 731 4880 or through their website.
  • The Government's Veterans' Gateway offers advice and help for veterans seeking support and can be contacted on 0800 802 1212 or through the website.
  • Mind offers a helpline on 0300 123 3393 from 9am to 6pm.
  • Help for Heroes provide lifelong support to service personnel and military veterans with injuries, illnesses and wounds sustained while serving in the British Armed Forces.