The wife of a Naval veteran from West Cumbria is backing a new Help for Heroes campaign aimed at encouraging Armed Forces families to come forward for mental health support.
In the run up to Blue Monday (January 15), the military charity has released new research which reveals that, in the North West, 27percent of partners or family members of veterans or Service Personnel feel that their own wellbeing and mental health has been directly affected as a result of their loved one’s situation.
This includes Diane Richardson from Distington who married David after meeting him on a blind date back in 1989. The couple were inseparable from thereon – but not always for the right reasons.
For David suffers from mental health problems related to his career in the Royal Navy and became increasingly anti-social and very dependent on his wife.
“I built a protective wall around myself with Diane, and the house was a secondary wall,” admitted the 58-year-old former pupil of St Benedict’s School in Whitehaven.
“I never used to venture out unless Diane was with me. I never mixed in any social groups and I had a very low tolerance of fools and people who won’t help themselves.”
That made Diane feel trapped, unable to leave David on his own. And their situation is not unique.
The Help for Heroes survey reveals that one in eight (16 per cent) of military families in the UK said they would try to cope with any issues alone, with the stigma of speaking up as an Armed Services partner or family member being given as the main reason.
Worryingly, 39 per cent of those who would try to cope alone stated that they “don’t feel [they] have the right to seek help”; almost half (43 per cent) said they “need to be the strong one”; and 16 per cent admitted they would be “afraid of appearing weak”. One in three would turn to a family member, friend or other veteran wives/families before approaching their GP or a medical professional.
Diane and David – who have two daughters – DID eventually seek help and have benefited hugely from the support they have been given by Help for Heroes. They agreed to talk about their experiences of living with service-related PTSD to encourage other families to seek help.
Said Diane: “I knew from the start that David had physical injuries due to the scars on his knee and because he walked with a stick. He went on to have several more operations on his knee and, eventually, an amputation.
“The mental injuries, I didn’t really understand. He used to get really bad nightmares where he would be shouting and screaming, jumping in his sleep.
“But when I asked him about them, he would never tell me. He would just go into himself. I didn’t realise at the time that it was PTSD because he never discussed them with me.”
Diane, 52, noticed a pattern to David’s nightmares. They would happen most prolifically in May – the anniversary of the crucial battles of the Falklands War in which he was involved – around Bonfire Night, if he had done too much or was in pain.
While the nightmares themselves never ever affected Diane and David’s relationship they – or the causes of them – did affect the way he acted in everyday life.
“He was very secretive. He didn’t open up about his nightmares and he didn’t open up in real life. He would just bury it in the sand. Anything he had a problem with, he would hide it from me until eventually I would find out – and then it was 20 times worse.
“I knew we had to sort it out.”
That’s when they contacted Help for Heroes. Both have benefited ever since. With support from one of the Charity’s Psychological Wellbeing Advisors (PWA) based at Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick, David has finally felt able to reveal the traumatic experiences that caused his nightmares, and not just to his PWA but to Diane too; while she has attended a Mental Health Awareness course that has helped her better understand David’s behaviour.
Diane has also qualified as a Sports Physiotherapist after completing a six-month course at the Recovery Centre and is hoping to combine that with her existing Swedish massage qualification to set up a part time business, fitting it in around caring for David. That’s something that she never thought would be possible.
“Since going Phoenix House, David has been able to do courses, some training and meet people who are on the same wavelength as him.
“Sometimes I’d feel quite trapped, that I had to be with him 24/7. So, for David to feel so comfortable that he is able to go to Phoenix House on his own is really good because I get that little break as well.
“The other good thing for me is being able to talk to other people whose husbands have also got PTSD. Sometimes I feel quite disloyal talking about David to somebody else so it’s nice to be able to listen to other people sharing and telling what their husbands do and to know it’s not just me; that I’m not on my own – I’ve got that support.
“The future looks rosy. It should be good!”
David is equally optimisitic. His confidence has increased so much that he has even joined the Invictus Choir.
“That was a huge step because it was a bit outside of what I am comfortable with,” he admits. “I no longer feel like I am alone or have to isolate myself.
“And, thanks to the psychological team, my memories feel part of me now; not something I should get rid of.”
Depression and anxiety are just two mental health conditions that affect almost one in three (30 per cent) of affected family members of serving and ex-Personnel.
As Diane has testified, for many veterans their problems – physical or emotional – are so overwhelming it affects their whole family.
The private despair their relatives suffer had largely gone unnoticed until Help for Heroes launched Hidden Wounds which provides free and confidential support to veterans, their families and the families of those still serving, who are living with anxiety, depression, stress, anger or who wish to change their drinking habits.
Now in its fourth year, Hidden Wounds has already helped almost 2,000 veterans and their families, but tens of thousands more are in need of the unique support offered by the service.
Karen Mead, Head of Psychological Wellbeing, Help for Heroes, said: “Stigma continues to be a big barrier in coming forward for support for serving personnel and veterans but also their families. This is a concern. We need to reach these families to let them know if they need support, we are here for them. Help for Heroes Hidden Wounds offers free and confidential advice to the family members of these Veterans, if they are worried about the impact of their Veteran’s mental health on their own wellbeing.”
She added: “When Veterans are struggling, their loved ones can be a force for good. We need to remind families that they are an important part of their veteran’s support network and they are just as deserving of support as their veteran.”
Help for Heroes also offers the Band of Sisters fellowship, a community for family members of wounded, injured or sick Veterans and Service Personnel. The Charity also recently launched its ‘The Force for Good’ campaign to celebrate its 10th anniversary, which recognises the potential in the wounded, injured and sick who have served their country.
Family members who are concerned about the mental health of a Veteran close to them can contact Hidden Wounds using the following details:
Tel: 0808 2020 144 (free from UK landlines)