Speech by Prince Harry at Veterans’ Mental Health Conference
The Great Hall, Strand Campus, King’s College, London
15 March 2018
Thank you to everyone for being here and for the work you’re all doing. Special thanks to our hosts Kings College London and the supporters for today’s event, the Forces in Mind Trust.
When we were here last year, the Heads Together campaign was in full flight. A new type of conversation had begun – a positive and optimistic conversation – putting mental health and our mental fitness at the forefront of public consciousness. And those of us who were in this room 12 months ago recognised that while much had been done, we needed to redouble our efforts to work together.
For us, Heads Together is now taking on a new phase. We’re taking what we learned in the campaign and adding our support to those areas that we feel particularly passionate about and where we can make a lasting difference.
It is clear to me that many of the problems and difficulties people face, both in the military and in wider society, all begin with mental health. Yet support for mental health has been an afterthought for far too long.
Resources, attention and a huge amount of money have been drawn into addressing the symptoms rather than tackling the cause. Anger, isolation, violence, substance misuse, all stem from the same place – and these are not unique to the military. To truly make a difference to veterans and their families, of course, we must help those in need, but we must focus on solving the problem at source.
We’ve made great strides in physical rehabilitation. The Invictus Games shows how injured men and women are no longer defined by their physical injury. It proves that with the right recovery and support, people can transition from terrible situations and conquer great challenges. This is not yet the same for mental health. This is why an event like today – and the work that you are all doing – is so important.
For me, this issue is personal. My time in the Army gave me the strongest respect for everyone who wears the uniform. It is a community I am proud to belong to, and I will always seek out anyway that I can to support it.
I have seen those I have served with suffer, struggling to seek out the help they desperately need. And we know there are more just like them who continue to suffer in silence. And when the individual doesn’t or can’t reach out for help, it is also their families who suffer; especially their spouses and children, who are left feeling desperate and confused as they try to seek appropriate help for those ones that they love. Some of the stories that Meghan and I heard when we visited Colchester Garrison a few weeks ago shocked us to our core. But despite meeting these people and others who are in the darkest of places, I am continually surrounded and inspired by amazingly positive outcomes.
Through the Endeavour Fund and the Invictus Games, I have been privileged to witness the journey that many, many, many men and women have taken – from desperation and isolation, to amazing achievements, regaining self-worth, and finding community once more. Of the thousands of service personnel and veterans that have taken part in the Endeavour Fund activities or the Invictus Games, all of them will have experienced life-changing challenges from their service.
But despite this, and, in many cases, because of this, we have seen that these men and women grow and go on to play vital and positive roles in society again. We must recognise our veterans for what they are – incredible assets – and not define them by an injury or a condition. It might be their injury which draws our attention, but it’s their unconquerable spirit, willingness to serve others, deep-rooted values and their unique skills which makes them stand above the rest.
Since we met last year, we have moved forward in so many ways, and there are three I particularly want to highlight today.
First, I believe that one the most significant developments has been the way we have all worked together as part of Contact. We all recognised the challenge; that we needed to put our organisational differences aside to better support the Armed Forces and Veteran Community. We have all been guilty of adding extra layers and complication to an already confusing array of support. For those organisations involved, Contact has created a vehicle for us to focus on a shared ambition. Collectively, we can improve services and how to find them, by sharing best practice, sharing resources, and helping each other to improve access. We can explore new ideas, challenge each other, and attempt to solve the issues that we all face.
In spite of this progress, accessing help is still a confusing marketplace. The veterans should always be our number one concern, allowing us to put aside our individual brands or publicity, for their sake.
Contact provides us with this platform; we now need to use it effectively. This year, we need to see improved service mapping, and we need to develop a common, universal language. This will make it easier for those seeking support, for medical practitioners and for all of us. With the help of Professor Neil Greenberg, Contact has also developed 10 guiding principles for those either seeking or providing services. I ask every organisation here to commit to using them and integrate them to everything that we do. To achieve success, we must align, we must connect and we must get better. We are losing good people, so no more excuses, please, let’s work together and be the best at what we do.
Another significant moment for me was the agreement The Royal Foundation reached with the Ministry of Defence. Building resilience among new recruits and serving personnel is absolutely key to the combat effectiveness of our troops, and a chance to tackle the cause rather than waiting for the symptom to raise its ugly head.
In an ever-shrinking Defence community where every man and woman counts, we must consider that mental health issues are the second highest cause of absence after muscular-skeletal injury. Mental fitness is integral to who we are, and arguably the most important part of us as a person; whether one is dealing with stress at home, operational fatigue or difficult experiences from the past.
I have been hugely encouraged to see how forward leaning the MOD have become in developing positive attitudes and policies towards mental health and well-being. Their example is a model which I hope other employers will look to. I truly believe that we can draw lessons from elite sport where a competitor’s mental resilience gives them the edge and is often the difference between success and defeat.
I’m confident that if the actions outlined in last year’s strategy paper are effectively executed, along with the partnership with The Royal Foundation, the culture of proactively maintaining the psychological fitness of our serving personnel will create a cohort of mental health ambassadors for generations to come.
Thirdly, I want to highlight the partnership I have seen between the Defence medical services, the NHS and the third sector, called TILS – the Transition, Intervention and Liaison Services. Gone are the days of each working in isolation.
Again, Meghan and I recently visited The North Essex Veterans Mental Health Network – that needs some sort of an acronym, I think – and we got to see the amazing work that they are doing in Colchester. They have produced a seamless journey for veterans, with centrally held case management that results in transitional, not transactional movement across care services. This style of service has been adopted by NHS England and is now in operation across a number of health trusts across the country.
All of these projects and programmes have been born from greater collaboration, and will succeed because we can continue to work in partnership. But equally, they will succeed if we focus on how to improve transition, and not on each individual transaction. A veteran’s journey needs to be as seamless as possible. Currently, services are very transactional, causing a stop-start process where people drop out or get lost. By focusing on transition, guiding them through the whole system, helping them grow along the way, we will see more consistent care for the individual and more improved outcomes, probably for less money. So, essentially, spending to save, as Beverley said earlier.
One issue I also need to address is the misconception of who veterans are and what issues they face as previously discussed. When the public hear about mental health and the military, as they have done in recent weeks, they are fed an image of broken men and women, with everything bored down to PTSD.
Reports show the majority of the public still consider most veterans to be damaged by their service. And when they think about veterans and their mental health, they assume PTSD, with secondary effects of extensive substance misuse, unemployment and homelessness.
In reality, just 2.4 per cent of those people leaving the forces in the last three years were medically discharged because of mental health, and just 0.9 per cent because of Post-Traumatic Stress. As a recent King’s study shows us, the proportion of veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress is very similar to the general population – with just 1.6 per cent separating them.
This misconception is having an incredibly negative impact on veterans as they transition, especially when looking for a new job and career. And it can be a significant block to support – it may stop someone reaching out for help, it may stop a family recognising the symptoms, and it can stop the system from focusing on the full breadth of issues at hand.
So, let’s do a better job of educating the media and the public – Post Traumatic Stress cannot be shorthand for military mental health – and we must challenge this misconception whenever and wherever we see it.
Military service is enriching and good for society. Our experiences show that employers value veterans and we want to push that message that they are incredible assets to any business. Any employer would be lucky to have them as part of your team – and that’s a fact.
Serving your country makes you a better person for your family, your community, and your country; increased confidence, discipline, teamwork, loyalty, and the ability to realise huge potential in yourself.
So many men and women that have left the forces are making a huge contribution to their community. We must create an environment where all are able to do the same if they so wish.
All of the successful steps we’ve taken so far have involved collaboration, and I urge all of you to commit to greater openness and coordination so we can make this change together. The work that has been done over the last year has left me encouraged and optimistic for the future; it has given us a great platform to improve and grow yet further.
We are all here to support the same group of men and women; we all have the same shared values, so let’s continue to share resources, ideas, and creative thinking.
The opportunity must be seized by the people in this room, and I am very proud to be alongside you as you do.