From the age of about eight, I remember watching TV shows about soldiers and loving the idea of being part of a group, doing something strenuous and pushing my limits. I was hooked on the idea until I joined the army in 2003. I was 16.
I immediately liked life in the army. As a child, I had built up how difficult being a soldier would be in my imagination, but I blossomed quickly and really enjoyed it. I loved being part of a team, getting to the point and pushing my limits. We were constantly traveling the world and playing many different sports. It was very fun.
My first posting was in Afghanistan as a 20-year-old shooter in 2006. Later I became a reconnaissance soldier and served four additional postings. three others in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.
Serve in the army
During my 18 years in the army, I survived two bomb explosions. The first was a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) attack on my first tour, where sadly four people died. The other three soldiers in my unit had to fight their way out of the ambush.
It was a terrible and very sad experience, but we didn’t have time to reflect on what happened. We knew why we were there. We had an hour to pick up a new vehicle and then we were back in the field to fight again. We never had time to think about our experiences.
The second attack was an improvised explosive device (IED) where again, unfortunately, not everyone survived. I was lucky to come back unscathed on both occasions, but they were very difficult experiences.
Although we heard a lot of bad things about these tours, I think good came out of it as well. Our unit has helped thousands of people during this time; girls in school and women in politics and sport. You could see the change happening back then. It’s good to think that we were part of it.
I was an adult and I knew what was expected of me as a soldier. However, as a member of the armed forces, I believe the military is great at getting you ready for battle and in that warrior mindset, but not so good at bringing you back down.
I noticed quickly after returning from Afghanistan that I was much more aggressive, frustrated and easily triggered than before I left.
Struggling with mental health
I didn’t feel like I could talk to other soldiers about those feelings at all. I would say that for the first fifteen years of my service, I had never heard of anyone talking about mental health or depression. I was naive and oblivious to the concept.
I think I put aside a lot of my negative feelings. I thought they were something that would pass and I was controlling them. Sometimes I masked them while drinking or going out. Especially in the armed forces, you’re with a large group of people on a daily basis, so it’s easy to disguise your feelings and pretend they’re not happening by getting caught up in morale and having a good time with friends.
After my fifth tour, I struggled a lot with paranoia, anxiety, and then depression. I didn’t feel like I was getting the help I needed while I was in the military, so that’s something I tried to do on my own. I found different methods to deal with my emotions and it was something I wanted to continue doing, but I didn’t feel able to do it in a military environment.
friends committing suicide
But the real reason I left the armed forces was because in the last three years of my service, eleven of my friends committed suicide.
Throughout my career and adult life, I’ve lost a lot of friends on the battlefield, so getting a phone call saying, “Unfortunately, Soldier X died in Afghanistan or Iraq” was almost quite common. But getting a call from a senior officer saying a comrade had committed suicide didn’t make sense to me.
It’s awful to go to a funeral anyway, but it’s very difficult when there seem to be no answers. When this happens three or four times a year, it’s really not pleasant.
In 2017, the eleventh of my friends committed suicide. Tragically, I found it. He was a good friend of mine. I had had dinner with him the night before, but I hadn’t realized what was going on.
To me, he seemed like a carefree person, but mental health issues come in very different forms, which is why I think it’s important to help everyone, not just those who we think are need it.
Quit the army and start a charity
His death was the catalyst that caused me to leave the Armed Forces in November 2020, when I was medically discharged with PTSD. I wanted to do something to help those who were still struggling and try to stop more people from committing suicide.
I had the idea of creating a charity for mental well-being. I wanted to find like-minded people to help me, so I approached three friends, George Dagnall, Simon Moloney and Adam Carrier, who I thought would be equally passionate and willing to do the right thing, not for themselves, but for the beneficiaries.
They were all on board straight away, and in November 2020, we began the process of creating a charity called Head Up, which aims to educate members of the armed forces and the military community about mental health. We became a non-profit charity from August 2021.
During the first year after founding the association, talking about my own mental health was very difficult, for many reasons. It often made me feel pretty depressed for quite a long time. But the more you open up, the more normal it becomes; it doesn’t seem like a weakness anymore
Mental health is something we all have, whether good or bad. It’s something we can all strengthen and improve, just like physical health. Every person can struggle with their mental well-being at some point, but there is plenty of help and people to talk to.
I strongly recommend anyone struggling with their mental health to speak up about their experiences, even if only to themselves first. I find a really good way to talk to other people about personal issues is to walk or run while talking, so it’s not that intrusive.
My own mental health is something I’ve had to constantly work on, but I think everyone does. There is no quick fix, it’s lifestyle change and improvement. For me, it’s about finding techniques that work and continuing to follow those methods all the time.
Life is full of ebbs and flows, so when we’re on a downward spiral, we need to have the tools in our kit to feel better again.
Run 5,000 miles for charity
The charity is currently working to create a positive mindset retreat, where any member of the armed forces can go for seven days, completely free of charge, to simply learn different ways to improve their wellbeing. mind and resilience. The charity is not directly involved in working with the UK military, but we hope that will change once the retreat is operational.
Earlier this year I ran over 5,000 miles across the coasts of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Isle of Wight and Isle of Man, in 218 days. I wanted to help promote the charity and raise funds.
I started the race on March 1 and finished on October 4. Sadly, during that seven month period, I lost four more friends to suicide.
Trying to put my own feelings aside, because there are a lot of family and friends involved, it’s now fifteen members of the armed forces – who were, at one time, very confident and proud people – who felt they couldn’t go on anymore.
It was terrible, but in my eyes the only thing I can do from here is use my energy to further the charity and try to help as many other people as possible who are in the same position.
Men’s Mental Health Awareness
I think it is very important to have specialized days like International Men’s Day, to raise awareness among men about mental health issues. I think men often find it particularly difficult to talk about their mental health. You can discuss different points as to why this may or may not be the case, but the fact is that the suicide rate for men is higher than for women in the UK.
I think men are generally not as emotionally open as women. So the more we as a society can stand up and talk openly about these issues, the more it encourages others to believe that they can too.
I love it when a male celebrity or sportsman, especially someone in a more masculine environment, gets up and says, “Yeah, I’m struggling or struggling with my mental health.”
It really helps people realize that they’re not alone and they don’t have to go through this alone. It’s something we all go through, it’s not just a specific group of people.
When people struggle to seek or get help for their mental health, I would encourage them to seek out a positive mindset, whether through YouTube, Google, or books; find different tools and ways to cope.
In my opinion, there is no greater strength than taking control of yourself. It’s the hardest thing to do when you’re in a bad place, but it’s amazing to know that you’re the one who helped you improve.
There are many different organizations and charities that can help people, whether national or local. I encourage people struggling with their mental health, even if they are feeling fine right now, to simply get in touch with them, so they know where to turn and what help is available if a time comes when they need it.
Paul Minter is the founder, director and full-time volunteer of the Head Up charity. He served 18 years with the Household Cavalry Regiment, including five front line tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
As told to Newsweek associate editor Monica Greep.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, confidential help is available free of charge at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Dial 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours a day. Starting July 16, dial 988 on your phone to be automatically connected to Lifeline.
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