Northumbria University researchers warn of 'ticking time bomb' over alcohol misuse in veterans

Veterans alcohol misuse warning Credit: PA

By Kris Jepson

Researchers from Northumbria University, who have been commissioned by the Royal British Legion to look at why veterans are reluctant to seek or don't receive adequate support for alcohol misuse, warn there is a potential "ticking time bomb" that will see veterans from recent conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq hit "crisis point" in the coming years over drinking.

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The warning comes following an 18-month “ground-breaking” research study, which focused on interviews with 31 British veterans, including 20 who had alcohol issues, and six senior health and social care commissioners based in the North East.

Speaking exclusively to ITV News Tyne Tees the researchers urged health providers, including Clinical Commissioning Groups, NHS England and local authorities to work more collaboratively alongside the Ministry of Defence to understand and meet the unique needs of former British military personnel when it comes to alcohol dependency and misuse and to provide a more holistic support service.

These issues will be discussed next Friday in Gateshead at a special conference held by the Royal British Legion.

The nature of conflict and the intensity of conflict that the current younger veterans have been involved in, there is a potential that we’re going to see a lot more significant problems in the coming years around substance misuse in the broader term. I think we need to be ready for that and I think we need to start planning how we manage for that and engage with those veterans.

Dr Matt Kiernan Lt Cdr (RN, Ret'd), Northumbria University

An MoD spokesperson told ITV News, The majority of veterans make a smooth transition back to civilian life and manage social drinking in moderation, but we and the wider government are committed to ensuring that those who do experience difficulties, get the support they need.”

NHS England said similar research was carried out last year into the mental health of veterans. The findings were then used to help influence new provision which is being introduced in April.

With views received from nearly 1,300 veterans, their families, service charities and commissioners, as well as organisations and individuals providing support in this area, there were calls for more to be done to support a smoother transition from armed forces healthcare to the NHS; for services that support the recognition and treatment of early warning signs of mental health illness and diagnosis, as well as trauma, alcohol and substance misuse; and for greater collaboration across the public and third sector. Findings of the engagement have helped to inform the commissioning of improved NHS veterans’ mental health services that are due to launch on 1 April 2017. >

NHS England Spokesperson

Research Findings

  • 15/20 veterans failed to get support for at least 17 years.

  • The longest wait after service for help was 30 years.

  • 4/20 received help up to 10 years after leaving service.

  • 1/20 received help between 10-17 years after leaving service.

  • The mean time for getting help was 18 years.

  • 75% hit "crisis point" for homelessness

  • 15% hit "crisis point" going through the criminal justice system.

The researchers have recommended consideration should be given for addictions services, for both veterans and the wider population, to be returned back into the health sector to bolster funding and resources, because, they say, local council's social care services do not have the resources to deal with the issue alone.

The LGA and Forces in Mind Trust published research in August last year into local action on the covenant and around how the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces could improve the transition process for serving personnel moving into the community so that councils could be made aware of anyone who would require support upon discharge. Since taking over public health in 2013, councils have spent more than £800 million tackling alcohol misuse in adults.

Local Government Association

Veteran stories

Cpl Semi Navuku, Royal Tank Regiment, 2003-14 Credit: ITV News

Corporal Semi Navuku served for the Royal Tank Regiment between 2003 and 2014. He fought in one tour of Iraq and three tours of Afghanistan. On his final tour one of his friends died in front of him. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and turned to alcohol to self medicate.

It was kind of like the final nail in the coffin for me. Accumulating with all the trauma that happened throughout my career, that really affected my life. I turned to alcohol, gambling, my relationship broke down, I lost my house and I lost contact with my kids as well. I was using alcohol to help me sleep at night, it just knocks me out straight away. If I’m not having alcohol I’ll have a disturbing intrusive dream, then the whole day is a wipe out because I will have anxiety and depression.

Cpl Semi Navuku, Royal Tank Regiment, 2003-14
Sgt Maj Stuart Wicks, Royal Corps of Transport, 1967-92 Credit: ITV News

Sergeant Major Stuart Wicks served for the Royal Corps of Transport between 1967 and 1992. He toured in Germany, Northern Ireland and during the aftermath of the Falklands. He said, for him, drinking was part of the job. It was 14 years into his second career as a police officer that he realised he had a problem with drink.

If you were someone who didn’t drink then you wouldn’t fit into the army culture. When the stress started to take its toll I then started drinking. I drank whenever I was off. I would drink until I passed out basically. My first marriage fell apart mainly because of alcohol and as I went through the police service, the police identified that I did need some help around my mental health and also alcohol as well. I think that there should be an Armed Services Rehabilitation Act. What needs to be in place is a transition period for people coming out the services. >

Sgt Maj Stuart Wicks, Royal Corps of Transport, 1967-92

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