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Help veterans battle their addiction demons

Discover how an NHS trust is helping former soldiers look forward to a drink and drug-free future

Discover how an NHS trust is helping former soldiers look forward to a drink and drug-free future

Studies show that drinking at a hazardous level is far higher among those who have left the forces than those who have never served.

Alcohol misuse

‘Alcohol is acceptable in the army,’ says Margaret Winn, a mental health nurse at Mersey Care NHS Trust, which provides specialist mental health and addiction management services. ‘The problems come when they leave,’ she adds.

Her colleague, nurse Mark Beddows, agrees. ‘When we ask a patient “how did this start?” they’ll say “in the forces, we drank heavily”.’

Now the Armed Forces Covenant has awarded £405,000 to a partnership of the trust, the Royal British Legion and Tom Harrison House (THH) to provide detoxification and recovery services to military veterans affected by alcoholism and addiction. The relationship between the trust and THH began two years ago, when the veterans’ charity based in Liverpool began identifying people in need of fast-track detoxification to continue their rehabilitation. Two inpatient addiction units – Windsor and Kevin White – stepped in to help. Last year their efforts were rewarded with an award from THH for best practice in supporting addicted veterans.

‘It was a real honour,’ says Mr Beddows.

‘THH works to prepare people to come to us,’ he says. ‘They need to want to turn it around: if they’re not ready, they won’t succeed.’

Every aspect of a veteran’s life is affected by alcohol and drugs misuse, says Ms Winn.

‘People peel away, so they only socialise with those who also have addictions,’ she says. ‘Some lucky ones will keep their families but most lose them.’

Detox process

While detoxing from alcohol usually takes between seven and ten days, drugs detoxification can take four weeks, especially if combined with alcohol addiction. When drug and alcohol use stops, issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder may come to the fore.

‘Sometimes it can be a problem during their detox because they don’t have their crutch anymore,’ says Ms Winn.

It can also be partly what caused their addiction. ‘They will say that when they close their eyes, they see things they don’t want to see, so they pick up a drink to block it out,’ says Mr Beddows.

‘It becomes a circle. Once they start losing things in their life, they turn to alcohol to cope and then the more they lose, the more they drink.’

Nursing assistant Liam Cross is a veterans’ champion who provides a formal link between the units and the Royal British Legion.

Thanks to the two-day course he did last year, Mr Cross is able to provide better signposting. ‘Veterans are proud and don’t ask for help a lot,’ he says. ‘They don’t realise how much support is out there for them.’

He tries to be the initial point of contact for veterans, seeing them from their first moments on the ward. ‘It’s all about building trust,’ which makes it easier to spot a potential crisis, he says.

‘There’s a real fear about being sectioned,’ he says. ‘By spotting signs of distress early, we can prevent it happening.’

For some, simply no longer being in the services can be tough enough.

‘Coming out is a hard drop for everyone,’ says Ms Winn. ‘The camaraderie you’ve had disappears and you leave a place where everything was sorted out for you.’ 

But the discipline of being in the forces is often an advantage during the detox programme, with few participants dropping out. ‘We’re usually successful with veterans,’ says Mr Beddows, while Mr Cross adds: ‘The structure really helps them. It’s what they’re used
to having.’

Exit strategy

‘We won’t let anyone come in unless they have an exit plan,’ says Ms Winn. ‘It’s all done with military precision.’

Some former patients keep in touch, including one who has returned as a part-time peer support worker, helping clients at their assessment. Once a street drinker with a chaotic lifestyle, the change began as soon as he was admitted, says Mr Beddows.

‘On the ward, he was a completely different person; focused and motivated,’ he adds.

‘He was the first person we ever helped through the partnership with THH and that makes it even more special.’

Tips and advice

Alcohol and drug misuse are usually a sign of something else. ‘They’re the tip of the iceberg. There’s usually a lot going on underneath,’ says mental health nurse Margaret Winn.

Contact your local Royal British Legion and find out what support it offers. ‘Veterans will usually be much more comfortable talking to those with similar experiences,’ says nursing assistant Liam Cross. 

Veterans are trained not to discuss their emotions. ‘I used to think, why won’t they talk to us? But it’s not a reflection on you that they won’t open up,’ says Ms Winn.

Some veterans may not disclose past service. ‘Many don’t tell anyone that they’ve been in the army,’ says Mr Cross. ‘They don’t want to have all the questions about whether they saw action or killed anyone.’

Don’t give up. ‘Veterans can be good at pushing people away,’ says nurse Mark Beddows. ‘But you need to keep trying. Deep down they want help, so you have to try to find a way.’’

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