by Dr Roger Kingerlee
My starting point, on first meeting with a veteran of HM Armed Forces in the clinical setting, is that I already owe them a debt. As a civilian, I am conscious of the fact that all veterans have voluntarily put themselves forward to protect me and my fellow citizens against potential harm. In this sense, every veteran I meet has already done more for me than I ever will for them. This, as a civilian psychologist who also works with veterans, I never forget.
Much of my activity revolves around running our Veterans’ Stabilisation Programme (VSP) in Norfolk with my friend and colleague Luke Woodley, Founder of Walnut Tree Health and Wellbeing CIC. Partly via the Walnut Tree Facebook page, Luke engages local veterans, forming a key bridge into NHS services – including the 16-week VSP.
We wrote the VSP jointly, combining Luke’s own experience of combat-related post-traumatic stress, my knowledge of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and our NHS colleague John King’s expertise in mindfulness meditation. In effect, the VSP offers veterans, the majority of whom are male, a bespoke psychological deconditioning process, allowing them to transition into civilian life more fully and more successfully.
Some of the key psychological matters here are invisible to the naked eye, which may help explain why they have taken so long to identify in the UK and beyond. The hidden combination, for example, of military training overlaid with aspects of post-traumatic stress can have profound – and often to individuals and their families – apparently inexplicable effects on day-to-day life. Faced, at times, with mounting emotional pressure, and feeling that there is no-one who can help, many veterans encounter real difficulties, often compounded by anxiety, low mood, and substance use to self-medicate. Understandably, this can spiral.
To counter this, in the VSP, we explore the psychological mechanics involved and how – directly based on Luke’s lived experience – to dismantle the machine. There is a pattern here: I explain the CBT; Luke translates this into military language and metaphor; then John soothes us all with the healing balm of mindfulness.
Quite rightly, most of our veterans are sceptical to begin with. But with military-grade courage in the form of radical openness, and on a more or less weekly basis within the group, Luke walks out into the historical no-man’s land of exploring male feelings in public. He lays bare how it was for him at his darkest hour – and how he clawed his way back to life. This is full mental self-disclosure, and peer role modelling, of the highest order, in true Forces’ spirit. When one man gives of himself and his experience so completely to others, shame is vanquished by hope. A privilege to witness, and to be part of. Where Luke leads, the group can follow, slowly but surely, towards the light.
Each VSP, too, has its own themes, according to the needs of the group. Some recur. One is sleep, since the traumas of the past often linger in the unconscious only to emerge at night, and may need a nudge that – thanks to advances in psychological science and practice – we can now give. Another is family relationships, which can be strained. Frequently, here, gains are possible via improved communication and understanding between partners and family members.
By the end of each VSP, we do our collective best to ensure that everyone has learned and, critically, applied, useful material to enhance their own stability. Some may need further specialist trauma therapy. Some may be ready to return to work, full- or part-time. Many, perhaps even all, feel ‘normal’ again, knowing that they are not alone. Far from it: they are among friends.
So, while my own civilian’s debt to these individuals can never be fully repaid, when they leave the VSP after 16 weeks I can feel that I have contributed at least something. With all the psychological skill I can muster, I have played a small part in explaining how it can help to begin to let go of aspects of the past, and to begin to seize the present. Or, as Luke puts it: it’s time to stop fighting and start living.
About the author
Dr Roger Kingerlee is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust. Roger and colleagues are presenting their latest research findings at the Male Psychology Conference on 23rd June http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/the-conference-2018/
Read more about the Walnut Tree Health and Wellbeing: https://www.facebook.com/walnuttreehw/
You can vote now for a Male Psychology Section of the BPS.
Details are here http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/male-psychology-network/vote-for-a-male-psychology-section/