The 2021 JC Lord Memorial lecture will focus on mental health and resilience.
Increasingly, businesses and organisations have been actively seeking such advice in understanding how to build a more resilient work force.
This event will outline the lessons gleaned from the Armed Forces experiences on operations and how these have related to the processes the military have been using during the pandemic response.
The lecture takes its name from RSM John C Lord MVO MBE, known for his exemplary leadership skills. His service in the Second World War included taking part in the seaborne operation to land at Taranto as part of the Allied invasion of Italy and serving with 3 PARA Lord also participated in Operation Market Garden at Arnhem in September 1944. Lord’s leadership in the prisoner of war camp after capture at Arnhem was truly inspirational. In a famous speech to the officers at the Army Staff College in 1963, Lord spoke of 'discipline' which he defined as 'A moral, mental and physical state in which all ranks respond to the will of the commander whether he is there or not.' The values and attributes Lord displayed during his life underline what uniformed service does for individuals and demonstrates what individuals can do for their country.
The annual JC Lord Lecture will be given by WO1 Glenn Haughton, Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, UK Ministry of Defence, focusing on the experiences, activities, and concerns of sailors, marines, soldiers, and air force personnel.
Having joined the British Army in 1988, Sergeant Major Haughton has deep operational experience from multiple tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has significant experience of the training environment, having instructed at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on three occasions.
After a successful and traditional Infantry career, Sergeant Major Haughton was selected as the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Bn Grenadier Guards in 2010 and was subsequently appointed as the Academy Sergeant Major of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
In January 2015 WO1 Haughton was appointed by the Chief of the General Staff to become the first British Army Sergeant Major. He assumed the appointment in April 2015 and was the senior Soldier and Sergeant Major in the British Army.
In November 2018 The Chiefs of Staff Committee endorsed the appointment of WO1 Glenn Haughton OBE as the first Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The event is chaired by Prof Peter Roberts, Director Military Sciences, RUSI.
Watch the recording
Transcript: This is my second JC Lord lecture and just like the first I am incredibly proud to be able to stand here and speak under the name of such an influential character on my own life and career. A remarkable soldier and human being that has left a lasting legacy on so many. I hope that this lecture can help and influence people in the same way that his famous Staff College speech did over 50 years ago.
We are in an era of unprecedented change and viral uncertainty, more widespread, intense and emotive than we have ever experienced before.
Since March 2020, we have responded to 304 Civilian authority requests for military aid. We have 42 Vaccine Quick Reaction Force teams consisting of medically trained personnel deployed all over the country, and further non-medical military personnel working to support the rollout, to assist in the set up and operation of the vaccination centres as well as support the National testing effort. We are also supporting the Police, as well as planning support to our NATO partners, to our overseas territories, and to the NHS.
The British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy, have over five and a half thousand people deployed and a further 14,000 at readiness, to support the COVID response in the largest ever homeland support operations across all 4 nations of the UK. Over 1000 general duties personnel are supporting in non-clinical roles to free up those all important NHS staff. Testing, air-transport, traffic management, military planners, general duties, local response teams, scientists, medics, doctors, nurses; we haven’t had a medical deployment of this scale since the First Gulf War in 1991.
But it doesn’t stop there, our mission continues outside of the ongoing COVID Ops.
As 2021 begins, UK soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women are deployed on operations and exercises all over the world to protect peace, prevent conflict and keep Britain safe. Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Somalia and Estonia to name but a few. Over 11,000 of our people are deployed globally in support of training, NATO and UN Peacekeeping missions. They are supporting our Allies, deterring our adversaries, and capacity building for Global Britain’s future security and safety.
Right now the world is waiting for the vaccine to bring this global pandemic to an end. We have a focus on hope, solidarity and wellbeing. But our challenges won’t end if and when the pandemic does. None of us predicted the year that we have just had and none of us can predict the future. Uncertainty and the unknown continues to dog our every step. The United Nations recently said the mental health and well-being of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed. Grief of the loss of loved ones, isolation and restrictions of movement, shock at the loss of lifestyles and jobs, and difficult family dynamics. Distress and frustration are widespread.
The psychological impact of this pandemic cannot be and must not be underestimated, as much as we are unsure what that impact will be.
We must be prepared, and for our Military Family that means taking responsibility at the individual level for our own wellbeing and responsibility, and at the Organisational level for leadership, advocacy, support and treatment.
Arguably, Mental health awareness has never been more necessary or more talked about, but let me ask you this, is it understood? What actually is mental health? There is no general agreement on the definition of mental health and it is often interchangeable with mental illness, therefore impeding understanding of the full range of mental health. For me, I think mental health is a sliding scale, a continuum; there are various degrees between healthy mental wellness and clinically diagnosed mental illness, with most of us falling at some point in-between on different days or different stages of our life.
In the course of a lifetime, most people will have a challenge with their mental fitness, just like we all have obstacles to overcome with our physical fitness at times, some of us will experience unhappiness, stress and anxiety, but not everyone will experience mental illness.
This isn’t just about POOR Mental Health, we are recognising that Mental Health is about life experiences and the pressures of the world we live in. Mental Health is part of the bigger picture of human performance. Part of that recognition is the proven fact of how inseparable physical and mental health are. That our wellness depends on our spiritual, physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. It is a whole life DAILY journey we all live, it is a continuous part of life and the sooner we recognise the importance of wellbeing focus as individuals, the better managed our life will be.
Prince Harry said: ‘I truly believe that good mental health, mental fitness, is the key to powerful leadership, productive communities and a purpose driven self’.
I, like many others, grew up in an Armed Forces that was much more unaware and unaccepting of the subject of mental illness and indeed of the concept of mental fitness, as it is today. That is not necessarily the fault of the organisation at that time, but a reflection of our society then and its approach to mental health and wellbeing. I joined the Army in the late 1980’s and grew up in a tough, male dominated, macho environment where poor mental health was seen as a weakness. It was a taboo subject and not something that was ever spoken of other than in a humorous context, usually at somebody else’s expense. There are still elements of that today and in talking more about this subject, we can and will break down that stigma attached to it.
I am not an expert in mental health, but I can speak from personal experience when I say that regardless of how big and tough people think they are, stress, anxiety and poor mental health can catch anybody off guard and change their life considerably. Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave. Every single day. Poor mental health comes in many forms and usually without warning, it is important that we are alive to the signs in ourselves and others.
I am embarrassed to say that for 29 years of my 33 year career I was naive to mental illness and the effects it can have on somebody until I was affected myself. Only then did I start to get a true understanding of the problem. In many cases people have to reach the point of crisis before they realise that they were suffering from some form of mental ill health. I reached that point of crisis and soon became very aware of the true meaning of poor mental health.
Anyone that knows me, would tell you that I would be the last person they would ever expect to suffer from mental health issues. I genuinely believed I would never become affected. I was indestructible. But let me tell you that mental ill health doesn’t discriminate, nor does it choose its timing. It can come when you least expect it and sometimes you don’t even realise you are experiencing poor mental health.
Having served on 9 operational tours and seen trauma, death, grotesque life changing injuries and having administered life saving first aid, you would think that if I was likely to suffer from any mental illness then it would be PTSD. Well you would be wrong.
My mental health issues came 29 years in to my career when I was in the role of Army Sergeant Major.
No-one had ever filled the position before. There were nay sayers, blockers and a good deal of jealousy against me which was always in the back of my mind as I tried to establish a new and highly influential role. I needed to make this job a success and make it irreversible. I had to make sure it worked. I needed to learn about the complexities of the Army and that involved a huge amount of travel. On average I would only get 2 nights a week in my own bed which would take its toll on my family. When I established the role in 2015 I could see that there was little senior presence on social media, so I set up a Twitter account to help me learn about the organisation and to hopefully inform others of some of the work I was doing. In doing so and putting my head above the parapet as a new member of the establishment I received a lot of unexpected trolling, mostly by people that had never met me, whom had little understanding of what my role entailed and who had an axe to grind with the military.
I had never experienced such hate filled trolling, and for someone with little experience of it, found it hard to deal with. I took it personally and didn’t know how to deal with it, every time I responded it exacerbated the problem. That mixed with the travel, the work load and my self induced pressure to perform I started drinking more than usual. I had no time to think logically, I was going from one event to another and any spare time I did have was spent reading in preparation for the next. Many of the events I attended were charity or military sport based. They often involved alcohol and social networking and being a soldier I found it hard to turn down free booze!
In the first two years of the job I had gone from the occasional tipple at a weekend to drinking every day, sometimes to excess, even in my own home. It helped me relax and made me feel better so I did it more and more, I became dependant. I never made it visible and always gave the impression that I drank sensibly at events and would always leave at the earliest opportunity. I have always been able to go to sleep quickly but have always woken early, in that job I was waking at 3, 3.30, 4, 4.30, 5.... I would then get my PT in, I always did and I still do my PT early in the morning as a regime. With a lot of alcohol in my system, little sleep, lots of PT, stress of social media and the job, little did I know it had started to take its toll. I knew I was wired, but I thought I was resilient and mentally tough, no way could this stress break me, I was a machine, I will keep pushing, I will take more on, I will handle this, all will be fine....
One day I went to the doctor for a knee injury, a standard medical appointment I was hoping for some brufen and a tubi grip and be sent on my merry way. The doctor started to ask the usual questions, everything else ok? How are you sleeping? How much do you drink? I lied like most of us do and told him that I didn’t drink much when clearly I was drinking way too much. Then out of nowhere I felt this intense heat building inside of me like I was going to combust, I had never suffered from anxiety or panic before and I suddenly felt like I had an ostrich egg in my throat and I knew I was going to breakdown.
It came and it didn’t stop for about 10 minutes. I was sobbing like a child in front of my doctor, a 6’4 17 stone, tattooed Army Sergeant Major crying my eyes out and I didn’t even know why.
The doctor diagnosed me with stress, anxiety and depression, I had what is commonly known as burnout, I had literally worked myself to exhaustion, add on the social media pressure and abuse and this machine was broken. I was given meds which I would take for a further 7 months and I was downgraded, although that actually made no difference to my performance whatsoever. Although I was hugely embarrassed I felt a sense of relief, a sense of relief because I now knew what was happening to me, but I still had to go home and tell my wife. The 10 minute journey home took 2 hours and when I got to the door, I felt like I was composed and good to go. Door opened and it came again. I broke down in front of my wife which was more embarrassing than in front of the doctor. I didn’t cry in front of people, I was a man, at least that was the mindset that had stuck with me since being a child. Remember at this stage my wife thought I had gone to the doctor for a knee injury and now she was worried that I had been diagnosed with a terrible terminal illness! I confessed and told her what was wrong and she was relieved, she had known all along that something was wrong and I just hadn’t listened to her.
My relief was instant, I had an epiphany, I knew I had mental ill health and I wanted to recover. This was to be the start of my mental health journey. Although minor to many other peoples mental health journey it had a massive effect on me and my family and now I had to rectify that and I also needed to work out how to help others and prevent the same happening to them.
Marcus Aurelius said: “Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
I didn’t have the courage to tell my story for the rest of my time as the Army SM, that stigma and fear of letting people know, kept me from doing so.
When I became the SEAC I saw an opportunity and volunteered to become the first Armed Forces Mental Health and Well being Champion, a position from which I could advocate positive mental health and help break down stigma.
And here we are some two years later, lecturing on the subject at RUSI. The work that Defence and the single Services have done in this space is commendable and I and many others are extremely proud thus far of the collective effort that has gone in to the subject of mental health in the Armed Forces.
Many people do not understand the impact that poor mental health can have on a person until they either experience it themselves or if someone they love and care for suffers from a mental illness.
I used to be judgmental of other people. I used to decide in my own head whether or not an individual should present to a medical professional based on my knowledge of that person. But not anymore. I no longer judge and I believe that everybody should have the opportunity to present with what they believe is a concern with their mental health. We all live different lives and face our own challenges. None of us are the same, all of us think differently and we all cope in different ways. This is our journey and one that each of us live.
Lord Moran, doctor to Winston Churchill stated in his WW1 study of psychological effects of war ‘The soldier is alone in his war with terror and we have to recognise the first signs of his defeat, that we may come in time to his rescue’.
The Armed Forces has a whole life approach to mental health awareness and provision, and whilst from a Defence perspective, we must focus our military resources on our serving personnel and families, the whole life approach that we continue to develop with the NHS and our charity sector, is one I, as well as many others, are very proud of.
Media portrayal and a lack of awareness from the general public would have many people think that those that currently do, or have, served in the military are all severely and mentally disadvantaged by our military experiences. There is the perception that we are likely to end up homeless on the streets or that a high percentage of us may try to take our own life as a result of trauma witnessed on past operational tours. When you consider that the rate of PTSD remains low at 2 in 1000 people, these views are misguided at best and a damaging attitude for our Veteran’s future at worst.
The overall rate of mental health in serving personnel is broadly comparable to that seen in the UK population, and the rate of mental health for those needing specialist mental health treatment such as depressive episodes or stress/anxiety, is also lower than that seen in the UK population.
As a Country, we have a responsibility for our people. For those that have served and continue to serve.
Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace - “For many, being in the Armed Forces is one of the best times of their lives, for those whom all is not well we must do more”.
For those that do need extra help, in order to improve transition from Service life to civilian life, veterans can access Defence Departments of Community Mental Health (DCMH) for up to 6 months beyond their discharge date. They will, where necessary, be transferred to the NHS for continued treatment.
In 2016, the Government launched a NHS Veterans’ mental health transition service or (TILS). And over recent years and months the Complex Treatment Service (CTS), High Intensity Service (HIS) and the Veterans Trauma Network (VTN) have all been launched. The criteria to access at anytime following Service, be it months or years, is that you should have served in the UK Armed Forces for a full day.
Veteran’s UK, part of the Ministry of Defence recognises leaving Service is complex and as my own end of Service date looms ever closer, I recognise that this can be an emotional time, not just for us that serve, but our families as well. We are also incredibly fortunate in the array of phenomenal charities that support us, and it would be remiss of me to not say thank you for the hugely important work you do in support of the whole Armed Forces community.
We, the NHS and charities that support us share one aim, to improve Service life, and the likelihood of successful transition of our military personnel and families into a civilian life. We will consistently work with Government, the private sector and our dedicated charitable sectors to improve the journey and identify gaps.
Military mental health provision and awareness is at a level unlike anything I remember throughout my 33 year career and the current health crisis has raised that awareness even further. Defence has worked extremely hard to improve awareness as well as provision of care with our mental health services. We have had a mental health strategy since 2017 and we have launched numerous initiatives across Defence.
We have an annual Summary of Armed Forces mental health that captures data and trends from a 2007 baseline and in period 2019/2020, we now know that Armed Forces who were seen by a specialist mental health clinician remained stable at 1 in 37, so 2.7%. The highest percentage of conditions treated were adjustment disorders and depressive episodes.
Personnel from all age groups accessed military mental health care, with more women than men seeking support. We see a higher percentage of other ranks and higher numbers of personnel aged between 20 and 44. When you consider that the most common cause of death for men aged between 18-55 in the UK general population is suicide, we still have some way to go to grow confidence and inculcate behavioural change.
I therefore will, and do caution that statistics aren’t everything; due in part to the complexities of medical data and the fact that each person has an individual care pathway. They are not the absolute. They do however, give us key areas for focus and are a guide rail for our culture. There are many different types of common mental illnesses and we would all be wise to be aware of what they are and how they can affect our personnel, from PTSD, to some symptoms of the menopause, to bulimia to bipolar.
Whether it be research, data, care pathways or resources allocated, the intricacies of mental health dictates there will always be more to do, more to learn, more to resource, more to educate.
Our aspiration is that every member of the Armed Forces will receive training and education in mental health from the day they join the service to the day they leave, thus setting them up for success when they transition in to their veteran life thereafter. This has to be a part of the curriculum in the same way that physical health is. We are ensuring that our Armed Forces personnel have the psychological resilience training they need to recognise mental ill-health in themselves, those around them, and know how to manage their lives to stay mentally and physically healthy.
When you think of human performance you think of an athlete, but our people have to be better than that, they have to be able to operate and be deployable for every eventuality 24/7 365 days a year. To do that you need to be at your best, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Whilst we are on the subject of deployability, we deploy mental health professionals to all theatres of operation, ensuring that support is offered to every serviceperson before and after deployment. Post Operational Stress Management is firmly embedded throughout the armed forces as part of the decompression and normalisation process for Service personnel returning from operations.
Much has been done over the last 2 years to better equip our Service personnel and their families in their every day lives, such as a collaboration with the Royal Foundation which resulted in the launch of the impressive headfit.org, an online resource for all Service Personnel and their families and anyone else for that matter to utilise. In Jan 21, a review into apps, websites and helplines available was completed. These recommendations will be developed to ensure a coherent message, with the consideration that often the sheer amount of options for support out there can be overwhelming.
The single Services have launched their own initiatives in Regain, Op Smart and Thriving at work. Each programme fits the needs and requirements of their particular service and focuses on educating and training people in mental resilience and self care. We are introducing mandatory mental health training which begins from April, which will help protect and strengthen the potential and resilience of our Force.
With each step forward, we will break down stigma. This isn’t a box ticking exercise, this is about training people in the human performance skills to remain healthy and giving our personnel the access to any necessary support if they show symptoms of poor mental health.
This is all about promotion, prevention and deterrence. It is about a common understanding, acceptance and awareness in ourselves and each other. It is about an inclusive mentally healthy workplace and culture.
It is a perpetual journey of growth for our Organisation and we all have a role in it.
Dr Seuss in The Lorax said, “unless someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better”.
And whilst I recognise that I’m using a quote from a children’s book, we all need to care, advocate and understand mental health.
And talking of children, wouldn’t it be good if all of our children were read in to this subject early on in their lives to understand these challenges?
In Defence, our Navy, Army and RAF Families Federations recognise that Isolation, separation and mobility can all impact on Service families’ wellbeing and they are doing some exceptional work in raising awareness along with various organisations. I’ve been blown away and even moved to tears by the courage of children through work with Scotty’s Little Soldiers, a charity dedicated to supporting children who have lost a parent who served in the British Armed Forces.
There is no one size fits all solution for Mental health and wellbeing. Children, young people, civil servants, soldiers, sailors, airman and women, veterans, families; each person is different, each case is unique. When considering my own role as MH Champion, I often refer back to one of my favourite Winston Churchill quotes:
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts”.
Our work in Mental Health will never stop, there will always be more to do, more to consider but through advocacy we will effectively communicate our dedication to our people, increase confidence in the system to provide support and increase confidence in the individual to ask for that support.
I now want to talk to the subject of leadership responsibility?
Everybody must have the confidence that if they think they have a mental health condition or they just want someone to speak to, that they can ask for help. That is the culture we must all work hard to create and continue to demonstrate compassionate leadership, to ensure it is enduring and embedded in daily military life. I’d like to reach the point that no-one should ever feel that they cannot turn to those that lead them.
I’d argue that anything less is a failure of leadership. Personnel can then either be treated for mental health problems by their medical officer in their unit, be given a primary health care package tailored to the individual or referred to specialist mental healthcare services.
In some cases, poor mental health doesn’t need medical help. They may not even need to go that far, they may just need someone to speak to without judgment or consequence. They may just need leadership advice on a mentally healthy lifestyle. They may just need a cup of tea with someone they trust and that will listen.
For those that do require it, specialist mental health care is primarily delivered through 16 military Departments of Community Mental Health (DCMHs) located across the UK as well as overseas. They are staffed by psychiatrists, mental health nurses, clinical psychologists and mental health social workers.
A wide range of psychiatric and psychological treatments are available, including medication, psychological therapies and social support.
I have personally visited our Defence medical services and our DCMHs and have seen the first hand the work that they do. Utterly professional, dedicated and experts in their field. We are extremely lucky to have them.
I believe that the challenge we currently face is that there are two types of stigma at present in the Armed Forces. They are perceived stigma and real stigma. The perceived stigma is that we in Defence are doing a fantastic job in tackling mental health issues affecting our Service personnel. Through the programmes and initiatives that I have already mentioned, supported by Defence wide awareness briefings, social media, every day language, statistics and common knowledge, you would be led to believe that we have overcome this problem.
But the real stigma is that people still feel unable to present to a doctor. They are reluctant to present because of fear of being judged, fear of repercussion, or of being labelled and fear of losing the job they love. As I said, I was downgraded with no effect on performance, another moment of enlightenment.
It made me realise that being downgraded is about a momentary pause from some part of military life, so you can get better and give more. It is not and should not be part of the stigma. Stigma isn’t necessarily unique to the military but it is unique to our leadership responsibility.
We live in a world that values us for how fast we can go, how full we can make our diary, how much we can cram in to one day without a break. Being busy is seen by many as a badge of honour. It is the competitive culture we are immersed in. It is easy to prioritise work as higher than our own well being, and in doing so, the example we set, as leaders, is not positive.
My hope is that COVID may have changed that. I would say that leaders who find compassion through this pandemic need to make it permanent.
The pandemic has highlighted to us all what we need and what we don’t need, what adds value to our lives and what doesn’t, what makes us stronger. We must break down the barriers to our personnel seeking mental health support in any form. We must continue to promote positive mental health and detect early warning signs of the onset of mental health issue. Normalise mental fitness in the same way we do physical fitness.
Through honesty, displaying vulnerability, and strong leadership, we have a responsibility to lead our people and create a new normal that encourages our people to not showcase ‘busy’ as successful, to put productivity over presentism, to be role models and demonstrate excellence in human performance for physical and mental strength. To encourage and empower those around us to do the same. The importance in mental health advocacy in our intent and our actions cannot be underestimated. It will empower those you lead to follow YOUR lead, it will encourage our personnel to feel valued regardless of where they are on the mental health continuum, it will break down stigma and create a culture of belonging.
Confucius said: “life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”.
Our leadership responsibility, is just that - to care about the health and wellbeing of all of our people, because once you get that right, everything else will come.
Lots of people have reached out to me as opposed to their chain of command, for possibly no other reason than there is a chance they will never meet me. That makes them feel safe, that gives them the confidence to speak to me, the confidence that they haven’t got within their own chain of command. They fear being labelled, they fear being judged and they fear repercussion. That needs work. Leadership is about caring for those that you lead and if somebody has the courage to come to you with mental health concerns, then it is your duty to support them.
As leaders, we also need to know and look after ourselves and that is what I call reliable leadership. To ensure circumstances do not dictate our emotional behaviour, to not fly off the handle or appear stressed or unapproachable. That means we have to stay true to our values, our ethics and standards and part of knowing ourselves means strong mind, strong body and looking after ourselves and our own mental health. Our people look up to us – they expect more – they need us to role model the right behaviours – we can’t just talk this – we have to live it.
I live by a rule of 10, a daily mantra, I do this to look after myself, so I am at the top of my game, but those that I work with know it as well. The people I work and engage with know they can trust me to be there. Consistently trust me.
Now to the subject of individual responsibility...
Having a mental illness is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Mental illnesses are an illness just like any other. When you have a cold, it is not your fault for coughing or having a high temperature, but we do seek help or take cold remedies.
In the same vein, when you are creeping up the mental health continuum away from fully fit, it is not your fault for the symptoms that you exhibit, whatever they may be, but it is your responsibility, whether that is seeking help or learning how to cope.
I would challenge each of you to better understand your coping strategies, stress thresholds and where your mental health is on a daily basis.
I would challenge you to better understand how circumstances affect you and also your impact on those that are close, be that family, friends or colleagues.
Just like physical fitness, it is our individual duty to do everything we can to look after our own mental fitness. Our minds need training just the same as our body does, without it we leave ourselves open to injury in the physical sense and illness in the mental sense, but like all things, we are not always motivated so we have to remain disciplined in our training.
I knew that I had to manage my life differently after being diagnosed and I came up with a plan of action that I still use to this day to manage my mental health. Sometimes I still have the odd bad day, usually as a result of negative social media, but I know how to try and prevent it, to rise above it, to deal with it in the best way that I can. That is what we need to do as individuals.
We have all faced our own journeys with this pandemic and dependant on who you are, it has impacted our lives, some in a negative sense and some in a positive. Some have found the pandemic to be hugely challenging and are desperate for some normality and some have actually reflected and changed their lifestyle choices as a result. I am in the camp of the latter, from a personal perspective I have been able to use the last year to review my life management. Since my own mental health issues I have consistently managed my life, but this last year I have been able to really focus on what has been important and what hasn’t. I have started new good habits and stopped the bad ones. Wells..some of them anyway....
Because I found myself working from home for the best part of the year, I am actually more productive, I can fit more in and my outputs are significantly higher.
I have also found that working from home has actually given me more opportunity to spend some quality time with my family. A family that hasn’t seen much of me over the last 25 years.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Initially lockdown was difficult, I felt I had no purpose, I felt redundant, like I had lost my way.
We all struggle with the inherent uncertainty of change, particularly when forced upon us with speed. It is no surprise that adjustment disorder is one of our highest recorded mental health conditions in the Armed Forces. Negative emotions can dominate and there is often a degree of human resistance and emotional turmoil with change.
I fortunately realised that this was going to be the way it was for some time and I had to find a routine. But it took effort and thought. I figured out I needed to separate my week from my weekend, there had to be time for work and time for my family. I had to make sure I didn’t blur the lines of work and home. I also had to really focus and keep on top of my own mental fitness and didn’t slip back into old habits, particularly where social media was involved.
I earlier made reference to social media and I think it important that I speak to it briefly. Human beings are social creatures. We need the companionship of others to thrive in life, and the strength of our connections has a huge impact on our mental health and happiness. Being socially connected through social media has exponentially increased during COVID and it can ease anxiety, boost self-worth, provide comfort and prevent loneliness. On the flip side, there can be a very negative side to social media that can pose a serious risk to your mental and emotional health.
Sometimes social media can be a very dark place full of hatred and jealousy and the freedom that these social media platforms offer gives people the opportunity to express their opinion, without consequence. I have witnessed and experienced unacceptable behaviour on social media. I have received death threats and threats on my family. I have been made aware of incidences seriously affecting the mental health of some of our Service personnel and their families.
Most of the incidences I refer to, come from our ‘military community’ which extends to anybody that thinks they are worthy of being part of that collective. Anonymous accounts included.
These actions are beneath us and are frankly unacceptable. We are a tight knit military community and at times of Remembrance and reflection we all appear to come together from regular to reserve to veteran and cadet in solidarity and strength. I will not labour the point but COVID has taught us we should and can show that empathy and togetherness all year round. We are always stronger together.
Through COVID, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have not had to deal with death or grief, manage home schooling or look after ageing parents. I’ve reconnected with my family at a new level and have had the constant company of a particularly amazing miniature poodle called Rufus that helps with my wellbeing on a daily basis with dog walking.
I know that others may not have had this experience. Some of those around us, be they friends, family or colleagues, continue to need additional support or just kindness. It is one of the reasons that I remind and encourage any serving personnel regardless of rank or service, that I will always listen should they want to get in touch.
I mentioned my rule of ten, a mantra, a basic set of rules to live my life by. That rule of ten incorporates physical, mental and spiritual training every single day. It makes me concentrate on my diet and my sleep to ensure that I get the correct nutrition and rest required to make me perform at my personal best. Physical training is a way of life for me, it is my therapy, it is what makes me feel mentally healthy and completes my day. To stay emotionally balanced, I meditate and practice mindfulness every day, I make a point of getting outside in to nature, observing, breathing and being happy to be alive.
Not everyone will agree with my own personal regime and some find it hard to manage their lives in such a way.
Some people find it hard to find the time, to juggle family commitments and self care, home life and work life and motivation versus fatigue. This change has been forced upon us. Some people embrace change, some people passively or aggressively resist it, some people react emotionally to it. It is not easy but it is about knowing yourself and finding what is right for you.
Heraclitus said: "There is nothing permanent except change".
COVID has proven that.
COVID has been a call to arms. Now is the time for us all to make a difference. We all now have an opportunity to bring the subject of mental health to the forefront of everything we do. It has highlighted the importance of self care and it has highlighted the need for solidarity, teamwork, awareness and resilience and it has shown how vitally important our medical and front line services are. We do not yet know the full impact of COVID on mental health and we are in the midst of ongoing research of that impact on Armed Forces personnel, but I do know that increased pressure, isolation, restrictions and the unknown has impacted us all.
We must all be more accepting, we must all be less judgmental, we must lead through this pandemic and the months and years that follow, with compassionate and reliable leadership. We that lead must be reliable, we must recognise our own strengths and weaknesses and have the confidence to seek help when we need to.
When we look at back at where we were, we can start to measure how far we have come in the mental health journey. We still have much to do and our goal will always be the mental health and wellbeing of our people. This journey will never end. Our success must be measured in increments, each milestone achieved, each person supported.
We are all different human beings, we all have different needs and we all face different challenges.
With a better understanding of each other, with more tolerance, with less judgement and a mix of strong and caring leadership we can and will fight through and learn from this health crisis. Our organisation values our people, they are at the very heart of all we do and as we understand and deepen our knowledge of human connection and relationships, including those with self, we will be all the stronger for it. Individually fit, operationally fit; mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. To be competitive, adaptable and ready for today and all of our tomorrows.