An ex-soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has bravely spoken out about his condition, claiming that he and his fellow veterans going through the same thing are being badly let down in Northumberland.
In a candid interview with the Gazette, Stephen Latimer, from Shilbottle, explained that he had been sent ‘from pillar to post’ in his efforts to get the help he needs, which has seen him treated by the NHS as well as being in contact with charity Combat Stress, ever since he was diagnosed around six years ago.
Summing up his current situation, he said: “Now I’m stuck in a void because Combat Stress is so busy, the NHS is not set up to deal with veterans and my therapist is waiting for me to go to Combat Stress because they can deal with me properly.
“I’m stuck with an NHS that doesn’t know how to deal with me and Combat Stress that cannot fit me in.
“The politicians, right or wrong, made decisions about where they wanted us to go and stand in a line and we have come back mentally battered and bruised and there’s just no help for us and it’s just going to get worse.
“I suffer from night tremors, daymares or flashbacks, panic attacks, hypervigilance, I’m definitely reclusive. It’s all because of PTSD and it’s getting worse.”
Stephen served in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers from 1996 to 2004, during which time he spent two years in Londonderry in the riot team and another six months in South Armagh, often dubbed ‘bandit country’ due to its status as an IRA stronghold.
In 2004, he was put on six months’ gardening leave after his commanding officer asked him to speak to a psychiatrist, who said home was the best place for him. He was based in Germany at the time, but returned to the UK and left the army. Stephen admits that from 2004 to 2009, ‘there was a hell of a lot of drinking’. “I knew there was something not quite right because of how much I was drinking and when I met my wife, I knew something had to change if I wanted the relationship to work,” he said. Around that time, Stephen’s GP put him in touch with his first therapist who diagnosed him with PTSD. He then moved from Morpeth to the Alnwick area, which meant a change in mental-health teams, before he was put on to anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants.
He said: “I was almost comatose. I wasn’t getting anywhere and hadn’t really scratched the surface of what was happening; people seemed shocked when I started talking to them.
“I was passed around from pillar to post and I went from being seen every week to every two, three, four weeks.”
In 2010, he contacted Combat Stress – a charity that’s completely overwhelmed, they can’t take any more, says Stephen – and had a four-hour evaluation at its Hollybush House, in Ayrshire, in January 2011.
“I sat there with a therapist and a psychiatrist for four or five hours in a relaxed environment and started to trust. When you told someone something, there wasn’t shock, which gave you confidence – it was like, ‘we can work on this’.
“I was told I was going on a six-week programme, waited, but nothing happened. They said they would stay in touch via an outreach service but nothing happened, because I was getting frontline help from the NHS. That was devastating. Then a letter came from Combat Stress saying I was discharged and that just completely knocked me off the rails physically and mentally. All my confidence went because I thought I was going to be put on the right track.”
Stephen has been back with the NHS since then with a number of therapists and doctors in different places.
In January 2014, he was told about a pilot programme for a veterans’ wellbeing service that was being started up in Blyth, only to wait, not hear anything and then discover that it had been cancelled due to a lack of funds and a venue. “I stepped back, put the blinkers on and tried to ignore my symptons,” Stephen said. “I had a real bad depressive episode where I wanted to end it all. After five nights of no sleep, I got in my car and put my foot to the floor on a back road and only at the last moment did I take my foot off when I realised what I was doing and what was happening.
“I came home and broke down in front of the wife. We had an argument, or I created an argument, and thought, ‘why should they put up with this’.
“I got back in the car, parked at Alnmouth beach and walked off with the intention of not coming back. I walked about eight miles before I calmed down and came back.”
He went to Alnwick Infirmary where he was given strong sleeping tablets before going back to see his GP on the Monday, where he was given more more anti-depressants and sleeping tablets and started seeing a therapist again.
He contacted Combat Stress again, whose outreach service has been to see him a few times. It has also tried to get him back up to the centre in Scotland, but has been unable to do so as yet.
However, Stephen insists that some of his former colleagues are having a far worse time of it, describing one of his friends as ‘left in a comatose world of drugs’.
“Another person in my platoon was arrested several years ago with hand grenades in the back of the car,” he said.
“I don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but obviously something wasn’t right. He has served his time and has just disappeared; you just cross your fingers and hope he’s on a street corner somewhere.”
How Forces veterans are cared for
NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG)
The CCG is led by doctors and medical professionals and is responsible for planning and buying NHS healthcare services in the county.
Dr Eileen Higgins, central locality director for NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We are always keen to hear from patients if they are having problems with NHS services, so that we can learn from their experience and make improvements for the future.
“Armed Forces veterans have put themselves on the line for our country so it is important to ensure they have rapid access to the right service for their needs.
“Over the past few months, we have been listening to patients’ views about psychological therapies in the county, as we work to develop a new service which will launch later this year. I would encourage anyone who has used the service to share their comments with us, as this can help us shape the new service and ensure it meets people’s needs.
“The new service will build on the services that are already in place, with a clear aim of providing a more streamlined service, with a single point of access, more local appointments and greater flexibility for patients.”
Veterans or other patients who may need support with post-traumatic stress disorder should contact their GP in the first instance, so that they can be referred to the most appropriate service for their needs.
In the case of mild to moderate mental-health problems, patients can refer themselves to local NHS psychological therapy services at Insight Healthcare on 0300 123 4502 or www.insighthealthcare.org, or NHS Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust on 0300 555 1115 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The county’s new psychological therapies service is expected to be in place before the end of this year. Anyone who would like to share their views on the service can contact the CCG by emailing email@example.com, by calling 01670 335184 or by post to NHS Northumberland CCG, County Hall, Morpeth, NE61 2EF.
Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
Established in 2012, the regional Veterans Wellbeing Assessment and Liaison Service (VWALS) is run by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust and Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust and provides support for veterans of any age who have served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces at any time and for the families and carers of veterans.
The aim of the service is to provide a prompt, effective assessment, liaison and treatment advocacy service for military veterans and their families across the region.
VWALS can be accessed directly by veterans or those needing support can be referred by their GP, family, carer or another health care or third sector service. The service works in partnership with Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion.
The Northumberland Community Covenant, signed in May 2012, aims to encourage support for the Armed Forces Community working and residing in Northumberland and to recognise and remember the sacrifices made by members of this community, particularly those who have given the most. Information and support can be found at tinyurl.com/olrc8j7