The monthly session that is a lifeline for veterans in and around Portsmouth

Walking into the monthly drop-in at Veterans Outreach Support it’s clear why it draws in former military service personnel.  

People entering are greeted at the door, and shown into the Royal Maritime Club, playing host to a vast array of veterans support groups and charities.

The Royal Maritime Club in Queen Street, Portsea

The Royal Maritime Club in Queen Street, Portsea

Moving from stall to stall - under no pressure to engage with anyone - veterans can just talk with other former soldiers, sailors and airmen - or ask for more formal help.

Terry Beale, 59, served in Northern Ireland as a teenager and suffered undiagnosed PTSD for years. 

He started attending VOS and the Southsea veteran has since set up a model workshop at the monthly drop-in - helping others.

‘It’s only very recently I feel able to fight this corner on a daily basis, with PTSD it’s difficult motivating yourself,’ he said.

He is motivated by meeting others who have served, seen combat or struggled with their own mental health.

And this meeting of minds is a key benefit that VOS psychologist Dr Robin Kent knows helps veterans.

'They can see they're not alone - other people have the same problems,' Dr Kent says.

Around 60 people walk in at each session, held on the first Tuesday each month at the Royal Maritime Club in Portsmouth, between 2pm and 6pm.

Of those, 10-15 people will be new entrants, and about one in 10 will have suicidal thoughts.

Dr Kent, a former Harrier pilot who served in the Fleet Air Arm until 2000 before training as a psychologist, points out that the risk of suicide and mental health problems in veterans is about ‘the same as the general population'.

But it is something his team always assesses.

HMS Queen Elizabeth returning to Portsmouth. Picture: Mike Parry

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'Suicide is one of the risks that we have to be very careful with whenever we're doing triage or assessment,’ he said.

'It's something that we always check for and if we find if they are or have been at risk or have suicidal ideation we assess exactly how far they have considered this or made plans.

'We're very conscious of it - it's one of the thing that comes up.

'I personally have had no incidents of any people that I've been dealing with actually dying by suicide.

'I've had a number of incidents where they have indications that they're at risk of suicide.

'I would say that it's usually people we see who have got long term depression and certainly post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

'These two are a bad combination.'

No single condition of PTSD is the same.

And those who saw combat are more likely to have suffered the condition, Dr Kent says.

'The thing about PTSD is it's along a continuum.

'We get some quite mild PTSD which probably just shows as depression and anxiety, we get advanced PTSD which is kind of a (combination) of symptoms, which includes depression and anxiety then goes to flashbacks and a number of stress-related type symptoms.

'I would expect at that point their life is becoming pretty wretched for people.'

This, Dr Kent says, then leads to possible suicidal ideation.

But treatment can start to be successful after just nine to 12 sessions.

Treatment begins with assessing how memories have been organised and displaced.

Dr Kent says: ‘We will then revisit some of the memories that they have and and reprogramme those memories so they're tagged with a time and a place.

'With PTSD the intrusive memories don't have time and place tags on them so when they recur they recur as here and now, and because they're here and now they're very haunting and ever present.

'One of the things we can do is examine those memories, work out where they happened, when they happened, and replace them in the time and place together.

'We can then get people to face up to the fact that the memories they have are in the past and not existing now.'

Cognitive behavioural therapy can help people who are going 'through a cycle' and are 'unable to see a way out of the problems' they might be facing.


STIGMA AND ADJUSTMENT

VETERANS struggling on their own should seek help as soon as possible, Dr Robin Kent says.

The Veterans Outreach Support psychologist says former servicemen and women will be ‘surprised’ with the help they find.

'Seek help you are not alone - there are lots of people out there willing to help, so seek help and you'll be surprised,’ he says.

He adds: 'The real problem is that there's a stigma to actually seeking help and that seems to be the bar that we've got to overcome here at Veterans Outreach Support.

'What we're very careful to do is to make people feel they can engage at whatever level they want to engage with their peers or the can engage with the clinical team.'

Dr Kent says one of the worst situations can be the transition from military to civilian life.

Veterans can suffer adjustment disorder that combine with difficulties at home.

'They're not necessarily being fully understood by their partner or having difficulties getting on,' he said.

'With financial difficulties one of the way that they relieve themselves form that is to turn to alcohol and that takes you further down.'

Individual problems are in themselves 'not major,' Dr Kent says, but 'together they become quite huge'.

That is when life can appear 'hopeless'.

Dr Kent added: 'That's where we're reaching out for - to pick them up before they get there.'