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Number of UK Afghan war veterans seeking mental help doubles in a year

Published time: May 12, 2014 12:35
Edited time: June 27, 2014 08:09
British soldier Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Lock (2L) gathers his soldiers of the 1st Batallion of the Royal Welsh before a patrol in the streets of Showal in Nad-e-Ali district, Southern Afghanistan, in Helmand Province on February 25, 2010. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

British soldier Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Lock (2L) gathers his soldiers of the 1st Batallion of the Royal Welsh before a patrol in the streets of Showal in Nad-e-Ali district, Southern Afghanistan, in Helmand Province on February 25, 2010. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

There has been a “significant increase” in the number of UK Afghanistan veterans seeking treatment for mental disorders, a charity has said. The number is likely to rise as the British military prepares to withdraw from the country this year.

The charity Combat Stress has released new statistics to the British press on the number of UK war veterans seeking help for mental trauma. It documents a 57 percent rise in referrals in 2013 of veterans who have served in the Afghanistan conflict.

There were over 358 cases last year, in comparison with 228 referrals for Afghanistan-related mental trauma in 2012. At the moment, the charity is supporting over 660 Afghanistan veterans, but the organization expects the number to rise with the full withdrawal of US-led NATO troops scheduled for the end of this year.

According to the charity’s research, most veterans do not usually seek mental help until over a decade after serving in the army. However, in the case of Afghanistan veterans, the charity has found the average time lag has fallen as low as 18 months.

Commodore Andrew Cameron, the chief executive of Combat Stress, told The Guardian newspaper that mental disorders take time to present themselves, and as such the UK should be ready for a dramatic increase of cases off the back of the 13-year Afghan conflict.

"These statistics show that, although the Iraq war ended in 2011 and troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan later this year, a significant number of veterans who serve in the armed forces continue to relive the horrors they experienced on the frontline or during their time in the armed forces," Cameron said.

Of the thousands of people that Combat Stress has worked with, more than 83 percent of those who needed treatment served in the Army, and three percent were women. But it's not just psychological trauma that conflict veterans must deal with. Soldiers also risk serious drinking problems, with the number of service personnel who needed treatment for alcohol abuse growing to around 1,600 last year. According to the UK's Ministry of Defence, the statistics show record levels of alcohol abuse in Britain's armed forces.

Speaking to RT correspondent Sara Firth about his experience with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), former infantry soldier Damian Thompson mentioned flashbacks and nightmares as serious issues.

"The Army has always had a stigma of go out, get drunk, have a good time, let your hair down, and then get on with it,” he said.

But the problem spans wider than alcohol abuse; narcotics also play a major role. Ministry of Defence sources show that nearly 1,500 soldiers failed drugs tests between 2010 and 2012.

Combat Stress estimates that a large proportion of the 42,000 people who served in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq may develop some form of mental disorder in the coming decade. Conditions range from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression, and the veterans’ struggle against these disorders can “tear families apart,” Cameron said.

The charity says that even now it is still taking on cases from veterans of the Falklands War (1982) and the Gulf war (1990-1991).

According to figures by the BBC at least 453 members of the UK Armed Forces have been killed in Afghanistan since the US-led NATO invasion in 2001. The last of the alliance forces stationed in the country at set to be withdrawn at the end of this year.

However, Washington is pushing for a security pact to be signed by the Afghan government that will allow for a contingent of troops to remain in Afghanistan to aid in the security effort after alliance troops pull out.

Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the pact, but presidential elections were held this year in April and both the frontrunners have said they are prepared to put pen to paper on the deal.

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