Wellbeing and the armed services: How providers can help

If you live close to a military base , you’ll often see groups of service personnel out and about. Seeing those young men and women effortlessly jogging or yomping up hills, it’s hard not to feel a smidgeon of envy as you imagine being in such great physical shape.

Then, inevitably, you remember the huge challenges which military personnel face to their psychological wellbeing. Those in the armed forces face an almost unique combination of pressures, including the mental and physical stress of tours, separation from home and family, and having to move seamlessly between military and civilian life.

The impact of all this on wellbeing has long been understood by those serving and their families. Yet it’s only recently that the subject has received the research interest that it deserves. In 2011, when the KCMHR (The King’s Centre for Military Health Research) submitted evidence to a top-level military committee addressing tour length, theirs was the only UK study that had investigated the impact of tour length on mental health.

Military life is tough on wellbeing

In fact, it’s thanks to the work of the KCMHR, that we are developing a clearer picture of wellbeing in the armed forces. Their comprehensive research has discovered:

  • Rising levels of PTSD overall, with PTSD affecting 6% of veterans and serving personnel in 2014-16.
  • PTSD affects 17% of veterans whose last deployment had been in a combat zone.
  • 10% of personnel showing potentially harmful alcohol misuse.
  • 31% of veterans experience common mental disorders, compared to 22% in the general population.
  • Certain groups of active personnel and veterans are at greater risk of violent offending, risk-taking behaviour, and divorce or relationship breakdown.

Although there’s no doubt that the armed forces take health and wellbeing seriously, and each branch has its own support structures in place, these findings show just how significant these issues remain for our serving personnel, our veterans, and their families.

Wellbeing and military service: a two-way street

If military service compromises wellbeing, the converse is also true. Service personnel cannot do their jobs optimally when their wellbeing is compromised.

It’s well established that health and wellbeing affects a host of mental functions. Perhaps the most important of these for military personnel is our ability to make decisions.

Combat decision-making is a key example. In many combat scenarios, personnel must quickly make appropriate decisions based on a multitude of factors. This involves placing a heavy ‘cognitive load’ on the decision-making centres of the brain, which have to juggle changing sensory information, input from long-term memory, and so on. And to state the obvious, poor decisions in combat (and in some training) contexts can have serious consequences, including loss of life.

The cognitive load in combat situations is so demanding that researchers are  looking at technological methods to reduce it.  But although technology offers some interesting possibilities, a simpler approach is to enhance the cognitive machinery we already have. In other words, if we want our personnel to perform optimally, we should support all those psychological and physical factors which underpin decision-making.

As we’ve discussed before, it’s hardly surprising that good wellbeing is linked to optimal decision-making: it’s not as if those cognitive systems are sealed off from the rest of our physiology and psychology.

What sort of wellbeing support?

It’s apparent from the above that whether we’re considering defence personnel’s ability to work effectively, or to enjoy fulfilled and happy lives, support needs to be in place to enhance their wellbeing.

For those personnel at home, one readily available source of support is the UK health services. However, KCMHR research found that only one-third of personnel experiencing problems seek out health services for mental health issues. What this suggests is that health service support leaves a lot of personnel falling through the net.

In this context, we believe that private wellbeing providers have much to offer the armed services. Although approaches and efficacy vary greatly, the right wellbeing provider can offer proactive interventions which support personnel. When these interventions are based on data-gathering, these can be targeted to individual needs, offering a valuable support for veterans and those currently serving.

ART Health Solutions is a wellbeing consultancy, providing effective, science-based wellbeing recommendations. Our bespoke solutions are generated by gathering data directly from the organisation and its employees. Having proven our methods working with large, multinational corporations, we’re excited to bring our expertise to small and medium-size UK businesses.

To learn how we can benefit your company, please contact our friendly team.

Dr Paul Smith

Chief Strategy Officer, ART Health Solutions

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