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Mental Health of Veterans

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 11:14 am, 11th March 2020

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that it is no good sitting down with the widow of somebody who has taken their own life, or with their family, and saying, “Actually, statistically, we are in a pretty good place in this country when it comes to suicide.” The reality when it comes to figures and so on is that we are—the rate of suicide in the service community is eight in 100,000; in the civilian equivalent cohort it is 32 in 100,000. People who have served in the military are less likely to take their own life. However, he is absolutely right that each one of these suicides is a tragedy not only for the individual and their family, but for us as an institution, because we owe this unique debt of gratitude towards those who serve.[This section has been corrected on 16 March 2020, column 6MC — read correction]

We are beginning to really shift the debate. We have invested a lot of early money in data. We started from a very low point when it came to veterans’ data and data on suicide. We have put money into a cohort study, looking at 16,000 people from the beginning of the Iraq process through to where they are now. Clearly, most of them are civilians, but we are watching what happens in their lives, the cause of death if they die and so on. We are marrying that with an exercise in the MOD, going over the records of every individual who served who has died since 1991—almost three quarters of a million people —to have a look at the cause of death and the incidence rates. We have just signed the contract to give some money to the University of Manchester to look at cases in which veterans take their lives, to undertake a comprehensive study of the events in their life in the 12 months leading up to that, to answer the question whether we could or should have done anything more to intervene. I totally accept that the Government have not started from a strong start point when it comes to data around suicide and what we have done on it, but I want to make clear this morning that that is changing.

When it comes to this strategic shift in healthcare provision for our service people, I start by paying tribute to the service charities. They have done an amazing job—there are no two ways about that. When Combat Stress started, and throughout the period where mental health really was a Cinderella service—we talk now about winning that battle on the stigma of mental health, but 30 years ago that was not the case—Combat Stress held a candle for this stuff and was the only port in a storm. It has done an incredible job over the years.

However, for a long time Combat Stress and others have talked about the increasing presentation and understanding of mental health versus a decline in giving from the public. That has presented a unique challenge about what we do now. I am very clear, as is the Prime Minister, that that basic underlying mental health provision is owed to those people by this country and the NHS must step forward to provide that. With the problems with Combat Stress that have come to light recently, which everybody knows about, I have brought forward a third service to try to fill the mental health provision gap for our veterans. We have the complex treatment service, which was introduced last year and has been very successful, and we have the TIL—transition, intervention and liaison—service to speed up access to talking therapies and so on, but there is a requirement for a high-intensity service to look after some of our most poorly people on the NHS. I have brought that commissioning forward. The bidding process is going through now and in April I will be launching that. We will have those three services—CTS, the high-intensity service and TILS. That will be the framework through which this Government will see through their commitment to veterans on mental health.

The NHS requires people to deliver those services, and that is where the charities are absolutely critical. They have bid into the services and they are indeed running CTS and TILS in other parts of the country. We have had a lot of bids for high-intensity service. Those charities are going to go through a change as they fit in around this framework and leadership, which they have asked us for for a long time. The challenge then is to make sure that every single veteran and every service member in this country when they leave service knows about the programme of mental health care, so that they cannot honestly look me in the eye and say to me, “I did not know where to turn.” That is the challenge I am absolutely determined to meet. I will come on to talk about funding for that at the moment.