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Mental Health Issues (Veterans)

Volume 572: debated on Monday 16 December 2013

My hon. Friend will be aware that primary responsibility for the mental health of our veterans lies with the national health service. He might also know that I have taken a strong interest in the issue, and I am therefore pleased to report good progress not only in implementing the entirety of the excellent “Fighting Fit” report by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), but in the provision of substantial funding for national and community-based projects to support veterans experiencing mental health issues.

I welcome the Minister’s answer. I also welcome the vital support that the Government are giving veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder through the excellent charity Combat Stress. Its latest review shows that the average referral takes 13 years from leaving the military. There are various reasons why that might happen, but can we do more to get those with PTSD the help they need a little quicker?

I join my hon. Friend in his praise for the work of Combat Stress in helping veterans with mental health problems, including those with PTSD. The value of its work is fully recognised by the Government. Funding of up to £18 million is being provided by the NHS to Combat Stress to provide specialist acute PTSD treatment services to veterans and the MOD funds Combat Stress to provide remedial treatment for eligible veterans in receipt of a war pension, at a cost of approximately £2 million in the last financial year. As the excellent chief executive of the charity, Andrew Cameron, knows, we have been in discussions with the NHS about how we can further provide services for veterans, including access to treatment once they are diagnosed with PTSD. Those discussions are ongoing and we hope to have more to say on the subject next year.

Minister, diagnosis is one thing, but how much research is done on why those people suffer in the first place so that we can prevent them from having mental health problems? What kind of work is being done in that area?

The King’s centre for military health research, among others, is expert in the field. Professor Sir Simon Wessely is not only nationally but internationally renowned as a great authority on the subject. When veterans present with PTSD, which can be some years after they have left the service, we find that sometimes, because of a trigger event, the symptoms begin to emerge quickly and the challenge is to reach those people rapidly and to begin to give them help when they need it. We are talking to the NHS about how we can do that even better than we do now and we hope to make some further announcements about the progress we are making.

The charity Combat Stress has suggested that reservists are twice as likely to suffer from mental health issues and PTSD than regular soldiers or, indeed, the population at large. Will the Minister confirm that those potential costs have been factored in to the new Army Reserve costings?

It is true that reservists returning from operations have a slightly higher rate of incidence of PTSD than regular personnel, but according to my last briefing on the subject the rate is only about 1% to 1.5% higher. I am afraid that I do not agree with the analysis that it is twice as likely. My hon. Friend might not agree with me, but, if he wants, he can pop down and see Professor Sir Simon Wessely and have a word with him about it.

In the United States there is widespread successful use of specialist courts for veterans who might suffer from mental health and other problems. That helps to divert them away from committing further crimes. Given the Minister’s personal interest in such issues, will he consider the use of such courts and let me know his view of whether they could be appropriately used here?

I should say from the get-go, as the Americans say, that if it is an issue about courts the Ministry of Justice would normally lead on that. I and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is responsible for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, will attempt to talk to our colleagues in the MOJ and see whether any lessons can be learned from the American experience.