Would you recognise the face of someone with mental ill health?
Jonny Wilkinson, Freddie Flintoff and Vinnie Jones have all openly admitted to suffering with it. It’s not affected their careers, reputation or popular appeal.
Yet despite the celebrity accreditation to show it can affect anyone, even those who seemingly have it all, there remains a huge stigma around admitting a mental health problem. Few are prepared to link their name to the illness and put an acceptable face on the taboo topic – something that Colour Sergeant Terry Lowe and others want to change.
Terry suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the death of two of his friends in an IED strike on his patrol, and the death of two civilians in an air-strike to clear a Taliban-held compound that had his soldiers pinned down in an ambush during HERRICK 10.
Despite his illness, Terry volunteered for and served on two further HERRICK tours and has been promoted twice since the incident. He knows he will always suffer with flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD, but with the support of his wife, counselling and pure determination he is adamant that the illness won’t rule his life.
“I wanted to let people know about my experiences so maybe they could see there really is light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t think PTSD can be cured – it’s a part of me now and I have to accept that, but I am a strong person and I have to adapt to this. Sure I feel down sometimes, but so does everyone at times whether they are worrying about work or paying bills. It’s no different.”
Indeed, the vast majority of mental health problems – even in the Army – stem from stresses at work and home, and fears over paying bills.
Recognising the symptoms for what they are though is not always easy as Major Joe Stobart discovered when he was diagnosed with acute anxiety disorder in September 2010.
“I was hyperventilating and trembling, so I went to see the doctor as I thought I was going to be one of these 40 year old guys that has a heart attack! When the tests all came back normal, the doctor asked if I was suffering from stress to which my immediate reply was: don’t be so stupid I’m a late entry Officer! I’ve done 26 years in the Army. I don’t suffer from stress!
“It took weeks to come round to the idea. It’s all to do with standards in my book. Leading by example and acceptable levels of behaviour. And shaking and being unable to make decisions are unacceptable behaviours.”
Two years later and back at work, Joe still doesn’t know what started the problem. “There was no trigger for it. I didn’t see anyone’s arms or legs blown off, but having spoken to others in the same position, some more senior than myself, I know now that we all have our Achilles Heel.
“I was doing OK at work, I was on a long course which I found slightly demanding, and I had a few issues at home which didn’t help things including the start of a marriage breakdown. The effect of that was my brain didn’t deal with it very well and I started to experience symptoms: severe loss of sleep, generalised anxiety, loss of concentration, stuttering, and just feeling ineffective.”
Left unchecked, these symptoms can spiral and ultimately cripple the personality. Recognising and accepting them for what they are, and seeking help early on, is key to preventing other pressures from taking on disproportionate importance.
Padre Andrew Cooper, an army chaplain for the last 16 years, has much personal and professional experience of dealing with mental health. “If the flood waters are rising, emotionally speaking, and it’s up to your chin, you are already stood in a massive volume of water if that is the state of your mental health. It might only take that little bit extra on top, which might be a financial concern, for example, to tip you over. The financial concern might be disproportionate to all the other things that are going on in your life but that’s all it takes. The danger is that you then feel you have become unwell as a direct result of the last thing that stressed you out, rather than looking at the root problems,” he explains.
“My own experience doesn’t mean I know how the soldiers who come to speak to me feel. The experience is individual and unique but you understand some of the depth of feeling – that dark night of the soul that people encounter. That dark night of the soul that people genuinely feel they will never climb out of. That is one of the things that people often don’t realise about poor mental health is the fear. It can be utterly paralyzing.
“But you can come back from it and there’s no doubt in my mind that the experience of being ill has made me a much better Padre. I don’t say that in a ‘pull yourself together’ way, or to belittle anyone’s experience. It’s a very positive message of hope. It may take a while, and you will have to work at it, and accept the professional help that is offered, but it can be done. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s the most difficult thing I have ever done, but you have to say to yourself you are not going to drive yourself down any further. Pretending you don’t have a problem is what drives you down.
“And yes coming through it will leave you with scar tissue, or ‘issues’ as soldiers would say, but I’m cool with that. It takes strength to face the problem. You have to say I want to get better, and there is nothing weak about that. Quite the reverse.”