Page last updated at 04:00 GMT, Tuesday, 15 June 2010 05:00 UK

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment U-turn


Former soldier Ben Close tells File on 4's Julian O'Halloran about his PTSD

By Julian O'Halloran
BBC File on 4

A government plan to provide more help for mentally ill soldiers has been thrown into doubt weeks after it was announced by the Ministry of Defence.

The scheme, unveiled by the MoD in May, was aimed at early diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions affecting combat soldiers.

But a defence minister has told the BBC he opposes screening.

Veterans' charities say the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts alone will cause thousands of cases of mental illness.

The Ministry of Defence said last month it was "committed to creating an effective, through-life, mental health scheme for our Service and ex-Service personnel".

Screening debate

It stressed: "A dedicated programme for those leaving the Armed Forces will be established to tackle post-combat mental health issues: a new mental health screening service within the Armed Forces will work to identify problems early on, and for those who need specialist help, we will establish Britain's first dedicated PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) treatment programme within the NHS."

British troops in Helmand Province, Afghanistan
The government has promised to care for troops' mental health

However, Andrew Robathan, Minister for Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, told BBC File on 4:

"I think most expert opinion is that you should not screen people for mental health issues because first of all there is no scientifically robust way that you can do that.

"Indeed the downside of suggesting that people have mental health problems when actually they do not have, is actually quite immense and of great concern."

But when this apparent contradiction between this and the MoD statement was pointed out he said:

"We are certainly looking at all these things but the current advice that we are getting is that it would be ill-advised to go down a programme of screening for the reasons I have stated which is that you can identify all sorts of people having mental health problems which with the best will in the world still has some stigma attached when these people do not have any such problems."

The MoD had been responding to research published last month, from the Centre for Defence Medical Health at Kings College London, which found that 40 out of 1,000 services personnel were suffering from PTSD with the figure rising to 70 out of 1,000 for those who had served in combat zones.

Previously, Government data published by the National Audit Office had stated that the figure was one in 1,000.

Former Coldstream Guardsman Ben Close, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, told the BBC he had never been screened.

Illness stigma

He claimed the only help troops returning from Afghanistan was a day and a half in Cyprus where a doctor gave a short talk.

If you are mentally ill or in any way ill in the Army you are outcasted and that is not good when you are living in close proximity to everyone else
Ben Close, former Coldstream Guardsman

"He says if you feel any sort of symptoms now is the time to talk to me about them which is no good because they don't kick in till two to three weeks after," he added.

Mr Close said PTSD and other mental illnesses carried a stigma in the Army.

"If you are mentally ill or in any way ill in the Army you are outcasted and that is not good when you are living in close proximity to everyone else," he added.

The Ministry of Defence's mental health expert, Surgeon Commander Neil Greenberg, told the BBC:

"We have some very strong evidence that stigma within the military does exist but it is at exactly the same level as in the civilian sector and also the same level as is in the forces such as the US."

He added, "What I can absolutely assure is anyone who is in the armed forces who has a mental health problem and who goes and seeks help, be it from a GP, chaplain or anyone else is that they will get evidence based treatment based on National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidelines."

File on 4 is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 15 June, 2010, at 2000 BST, repeated Sunday, 20 June, at 1700 BST. You can listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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