Afghanistan: Combat Stress calls for more government funding to support veterans' mental health as helpline experiences record surge in calls

·4-min read

The government should step up and provide more funding for mental health support for veterans amid the crisis in Afghanistan, a leading charity has told Sky News.

Combat Stress said it has seen an unprecedented "upsurge" in veterans coming forward in the wake of the collapse of the country's government and subsequent Taliban takeover.

Jeff Harrison, interim chief executive of Combat Stress, said developments in Afghanistan sparked a 100% increase in calls to its 24/7 hotline on Monday.

With the crisis there dominating the headlines, he said veterans were being reminded of their experiences every time they open a newspaper or turn on the TV.

Mr Harrison described it as a "terrible time" for those who served in Afghanistan, a conflict that saw 456 British forces personnel or Ministry of Defence civilians die and many more return wounded.

He said many veterans were questioning whether their service was worth it and feeling as if the government had "let them down".

"Every one of those is an individual that is desperately asking for help," Mr Harrison said about those calling its helpline, which takes around 10-12,000 calls a year.

On an average day the Combat Stress helpline - 0800 138 1619 - gets 35 calls, which often take 10 to 15 minutes each to process.

On Monday there were 79 calls, followed by a further 50 on Tuesday and 63 on Wednesday.

Mr Harrison added that veterans who served in other conflicts had also reached out to Combat Stress in recent days as coverage of events in Afghanistan had brought their experiences to the fore once more.

In the wake of the emergency Commons debate on Afghanistan, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he was "urgently looking at whether we can do more to support the mental health of those who served in Afghanistan".

Speaking in that debate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the "sacrifice" of British troops in Afghanistan was "seared into our national consciousness" and would "never" be forgotten.

Pressed on whether the government would commit more funding to support them, the health secretary said on Thursday: "I will 100% make sure that support is there. I'm already talking with my colleague the defence secretary and making sure that if we need to add to that support, we will most certainly do that.

"We're talking to veterans' groups and others to make sure that we are doing everything we can to give them the support that they deserve."

Asked what more the government could do to help, Mr Harrison said he "completely welcomes" the health secretary's pledge and mentioned a number of steps ministers could take.

He said ministers could do more to highlight the support that is out there for veterans, as well as offering "reassurance" that their service is valued and stressing the pride the country feels at their sacrifices.

But Mr Harrison stressed "ultimately" it came down to more funding, either to the NHS or organisations like Combat Stress.

"There is always more work we can do, always more veterans that need our help. The only constraint is funding," he said.

"There are more veterans to help, more families to support, more lives to return to normality.

"We used to be a £15m charity and there was always more for us to do. Now we are a £12m charity, so we need to prioritise who we can help."

Veterans' Gateway is the first point of contact for service and ex-service personnel and their families in need of support.

Anyone within the Armed Forces Community who would like support and advice is encouraged to contact Veterans' Gateway. There is a team of experts on hand available 24/7 who can help.

For more information on Veterans' Gateway, or if you are in need of support, visit www.veteransgateway.org.uk, call 0808 802 1212 or text 81212

The Veterans' Gateway app is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

In addition to Veterans' Gateway:

Veterans and their families in England can be referred to specialist NHS Op Courage services by their GP.

In Wales, you can reach out to Veteran Therapists in each Local Health Board through Veteran Wales.

Veterans in Scotland can access veteran-led mental health and welfare support through Veterans First Point, part of NHS Scotland.

The Northern Ireland Veterans' Support Office links individual veterans, veterans' groups, statutory and non-statutory bodies, and charities supporting Veterans in Northern Ireland.

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