A research report launched today shows that over a third of veterans (36%) living in Northern Ireland who responded to a survey about their mental health and wellbeing are likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while a similar number reported problematic alcohol usage (36%).

The survey was carried out by academics at Queen’s University Belfast, as part of a five-year programme of research, the Northern Ireland Veterans Health and Wellbeing Study. It was funded by Forces in Mind Trust, which aims to enable ex-Service personnel and their families make a successful and sustainable transition to civilian life.

This is the first survey that focuses specifically on the mental health and wellbeing of veterans living in Northern Ireland, and it is hoped it will help to shape the development of services to support those affected.

Over 1,300 veterans living in Northern Ireland responded to the survey about their mental health; on average participants were aged 56 with the eldest being 99. Ninety percent of respondents were men. The study found that while the majority of respondents reported positive experiences of being in the Armed Forces, some reported experiencing mental health challenges. Almost 40% of respondents met criteria for depression, while over 32% met the criteria for anxiety. Around 4% said they had concerns about their gambling and 2.3% said they considered themselves to be moderate to severe drug users.

The study is also the first to make comparisons between those who were home-service veterans –those who had served in the Ulster Defence Regiment or the Royal Irish Regiment during their career – and general service veterans, who never served with the home services but were likely to have served in the British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or Royal Marines, whether or not they were stationed in Northern Ireland during their Armed Forces career.

A significantly higher proportion of home-service veterans were found to be likely to be suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression disorders. Results revealed that the level of gambling concerns, alcohol and drug use were similar in each group.

Concerning seeking help, 42% of respondents reported that they had previously taken prescription medication for a mental health or emotional problem and 44% said they had received psychotherapy or counselling from a qualified professional. Prescription usage and engagement with psychotherapy and counselling were more common for home service veterans.

The study also found a variety of barriers for veterans seeking help for their mental health including access issues, stigma and negative perceptions of mental health services and concerns about safety. A significantly greater number of barriers to seeking help were reported by home service veterans compared with general service veterans.

The report calls for greater awareness of the mental health needs of veterans living in Northern Ireland by health care practitioners and wider promotion of mental health and wellbeing awareness campaigns.

Cherie Armour, Professor of Psychological Trauma and Mental Health from the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, who led the study, said:

“As we don’t know how many veterans in total are living in Northern Ireland, we can’t say that the data is representative of the whole population of veterans. However, our research had some very startling and concerning findings from those veterans who responded and it’s clear that significant numbers of them have suffered mental health challenges. Most worrying are the reported rates of mental ill health and problematic alcohol usage, all of which can generate many social and professional difficulties.

“There was a large discrepancy between those meeting the criteria based on their reports of individual symptoms and experiences compared with the diagnoses participants reported receiving from a GP of healthcare provider.  This demonstrates that people often don’t seek help when they experience difficulties, or they aren’t receiving a diagnosis when they do. Our report details what these help seeking barriers might be for veterans in NI”.

Professor Armour hopes to secure additional funding to continue analysing the data.

“We want to further analyse this excellent data source so that we can develop an in depth and detailed evidence base that will help to inform support services to improve the lives of those veterans who are currently living in Northern Ireland”, she added.

Ray Lock CBE, Chief Executive of Forces in Mind Trust, said: “Our long-running study into veterans in Northern Ireland has made significant progress in understanding the unique experiences they have in the Armed Forces, and how this can impact on their ability to transition successfully. This important report highlights the mental health needs of this group – but there is more work that needs to be done to complete this picture.

“Until the health and social care needs of veterans in Northern Ireland are fully met, we will continue to generate evidence to bring about the change which is needed.”