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Air Commodore Paul Hughesdon: Fighting the Stigma

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week – one of the many campaigns on the topic that's gaining a better level of profile in the headlines. We're used to seeing veterans suffering the physical effects of their military service, but because mental health issues aren't always visible, it's extremely challenging to know which of our comrades may be suffering in silence. Its refreshing that mental health is now so widely talked about, because it's quite possible that many will be affected by their service, to a lesser or greater extent.

My time in the RAF started in the Cold War and I cannot recall anyone ever speaking about mental health issues, even though the outlook was pretty bleak should anyone have ever pressed THAT button. In fact, I doubt the term 'mental health' was even used outside of the Medical Centre. It was presumed that everyone in the RAF – and perhaps across the entire military – was a strong, tough individual that could cope with anything thrown their way; a stiff upper lip, forever stoical.

It seems strange to think about it now, given that military personnel have probably seen some of the most gruesome things that anyone, outside of the emergency services, could even imagine. And most won't have just seen them once or twice, but likely many times. These things take their toll and even though there is now in-Service support, some of which I brought into being when I was in the RAF, many are simply expected to handle it as if it was just another day at the office.

Paul Hughesdon

Back then, the force was tight-knit. Most lived on base, whether in the UK or overseas and everyone probably had at least one good friend that could be that sounding board – a shoulder to cry on or an outlet to vent frustration – without looking weak or feeling threatened.

But it was only those you trusted most who knew what you were going through, because if you admitted there was an issue, you could potentially lose your job. You'd hear stories that suggested that it did happen – no matter how occasionally.

Former C-130 Hercules pilot Martin Oxburrow's RAF career came to an end when he began to suffer from severe anxiety and panic attacks, which manifested itself in a fear of heights and flying. Martin was offered a lot of support from the RAF but it was still hard for him to admit something was wrong. He knew he couldn't carry on in his RAF career (how can a pilot with a fear of heights do their job?), which was devastating to him as it's all he'd ever wanted to do. He was discharged in 1997, at the age of 43.

Martin, now 63, eventually sought help for his mental illness and urges others in the RAF to speak up and do the same. He was surprised that when he finally did so, others admitted to him they had been feeling the same way but were too afraid to admit it and simply subjugated their feelings.

This works for some, but not all, as is clearly demonstrated by the desperately sad story of Squadron Leader Nicholas "Candles" De Candole, a serving Typhoon pilot who committed suicide earlier this year.

According to recent research, one in five veterans is likely to be living with a common mental health illness but many do not seek the help they need.

At the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF's leading welfare charity, we've been helping the RAF Family with mental health issues for many years. We have long worked with and financially supported Combat Stress, the leading veterans' mental health charity, and we've recently partnered with Anxiety UK to address issues head on.

Our partnerships have been working: Of those who have accessed Anxiety UK's therapy services to date, 60% have shown reliably recovery and 90% have reliably improved their levels of anxiety, stress and anxiety based depression.

As we've heard from people like Martin, it can be tough to make that initial outreach, but with the help of campaigns like Mental Health Awareness Week, underpinned by the Services in-house mental awareness programmes, the stigma is slowly beginning to wear away. Soon, the condition will become "normalised" in the same way we see physical wounds, making it easier for people to seek help.

As more courageous people begin to step forward and share their stories – whether it's a mum struggling to cope with a new baby, a teenager who's lost a parent, or a veteran who suffers from poor mental health or even PTSD – we will all begin to feel like we can speak openly, and no longer have to hide our heads in the clouds.

Air Commodore Paul Hughesdon is the Director of Welfare and Policy at the RAF Benevolent Fund, which provides support for former and serving RAF personnel and their families. He served in the Royal Air Force between 1983 and 2009.

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