Here Dave Fincham, a veteran who has been supported by our Complex Treatment Service, shares his story with the Telegraph.
“It was several years after I left the forces before I finally accepted that something may be wrong. I was working in the corporate world as a sales manager and I was very successful. But I couldn’t help wondering if there was more to life.
I began spending a lot of time thinking about my experiences in the army and the friends I lost. The difficult memories of what I had experienced led to me drinking a lot to self-medicate, which eventually became an uncontrollable daily habit that destroyed relationships. At its worst, I was drinking the equivalent of over four bottles of wine a day. I ended up estranged from my mother, my brother, my sister and brother-in-law because of it.
I became very negative, always seeing the wrong in people and because of that, I felt an overwhelming need to protect my community. This led to me becoming obsessed with challenging individuals who, in my eyes, were doing wrong, such as kids smoking drugs within the boundaries of a retirement home and people creating lots of noise. I took vigilante action, such as moving groups on, but it often put me in danger and got me involved with the police. I once ended up being kicked in the head and another time I suffered a broken shoulder.
My life was spiralling out of control. At its worst, I continually had suicidal thoughts while still trying to maintain a full time job. Eventually I completely broke down, which resulted in me being taken to A&E.
Admitting that I needed help was heartbreaking and brought me to tears. I’d never talked about what I was going through – in the forces there was a lot of peer pressure to stay silent and not talk about your feelings. Being the eldest of four children also meant I had a great deal of pride and would not show any weakness. So, because I’d bottled things up for years, it took real courage to gain confidence to finally confront the issue. I was physically shaking when I first asked for help at the hospital.
But I couldn’t access any help beyond that. Every time my GP or I contacted organisations, including charities specialising in help for military personnel, it was as though nobody was listening and didn’t want to take ownership. It felt like the goal posts were constantly being moved as they referred me from one charity to the next. It was crushing because it had taken so much strength to make those calls in the first place only to be rejected again. So many people could easily give up.
Personally, I was lucky that my GP, after numerous failed attempts to secure support due to postcode boundaries and various other criteria, finally managed to get me an assessment with Steps 2 Change, and Prof Mary Askew there was incredibly comforting. Finally, someone was listening.
The assessment report came through and I was diagnosed with CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Because of the complexities around being ex-military, I was referred to TILS (The Veterans Mental Health Intervention and Liaison Service) and, from there, I was referred to St Andrews Healthcare. I was relieved to finally access some help in the form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and without the help of Victoria Lucas, my therapist, I don’t believe that I would have been able to learn ways of managing my condition successfully.
The types of things you see and experience in the armed forces can be incredibly traumatic but you end up normalising it to get by. I was second-in-command in bomb disposal in Northern Ireland and have witnessed terrible things as well as losing close friends. We were constantly on high alert.
As a soldier, you are conditioned to bury your feelings and rarely talk about them, trying to normalise these experiences and emotionally shut them off. Sadly, it can come back and bite you when you’re vulnerable many years later and consequently many veterans struggle to cope. In fact, while the prevalence of mental health problems in the military is roughly the same as in the general population (one in four), only one in eight accessed military healthcare services for a mental health problem in 2019/20.
It is a complex mix of historic trauma, as well as being on high alert for so many years, that creates problems. I think this is where the vigilante behaviours came from. I felt as though I needed to be out there, assessing and confronting danger, just as I was when working in the war zones. That was what I was used to doing, but in civilian life things weren’t the same.
I also found that I had been conditioned to feel safer when I was alone in the dark. So I would often take myself off at night and sleep out in barns and hide away from the world – one Christmas Eve I even slept outside a church.
Life in the forces also trained me to make snap decisions. Things can be a little black and white for me, which is so far removed from real life. I could never see a middle ground, and that is perhaps why I struggled so much with relationships.
My recovery has required professional help but getting that support was just so difficult. In many respects I feel incredibly lucky that I got my assessment referral when I did. I can’t imagine where I would be today if that hadn’t happened.
I urge all military charities and support services for veterans or, indeed, anyone with a mental health problem – please consider the courage it takes for someone to call and ask for help before rejecting them.
And to my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, please open up and talk to someone you can trust to share your burden.
Today, I’m on the better side of good. I am drinking much less, I’ve joined community groups and I’m volunteering. I have a reason to get out of bed and move forward in civvy street. I hope that others can get the help they need to move forward too.”