The armed forces; wounds we cannot see

Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, Visiting Professor of Military Psychology, VFI

A 57% increase in soldiers returning from Afghanistan seeking mental health support is just one reason a military clinical psychologist approached Anglia Ruskin to set up a new research institute – one looking into psychological problems faced by the armed forces.

There has been much research into the problems faced by armed forces personnel themselves, but Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes proposed tackling an overlooked aspect: their families. In 2014 the Veterans and Families Institute (VFI) was born. Jamie tells us the story.

As a former Clinical Psychologist for the Ministry of Defence, I felt there was a gap in the market," says Jamie Hacker Hughes we needed a research institute that produced world-class research, evaluations and reports that could influence national policies on the lives of military veterans and their families.

Post-traumatic stress disorders and other issues are well documented in the media and have been the subject of significant research. However some psychological problems have been badly overlooked, particularly regarding veterans’ families: the impact of military service on their children, the impact on sex and relationships, not to mention the risks for early service leavers of increased substance misuse (other than alcohol).

We are working to set up a Masters in Military Social Work. This will be a first for British higher education.

Why Anglia Ruskin? The East of England is home to one of the oldest garrisons in the country at Colchester, the headquarters of one of the British Army’s busiest brigades, the 16 Air Assault. Many air force bases are also located in Essex and Suffolk. This concentration of armed forces personnel and their families, all living and working in the area, made it a logical place in which to try to set up a research institute.

When I met with a number of key senior academics at Anglia Ruskin, I felt the university was in an excellent position to contribute to the veterans and families field. After various negotiations, the Veterans and Families Institute (VFI) was officially launched in 2014.

What are our objectives? These are to conduct research and produce papers that will influence government policy and practice; to carry out education and training; and to be available for consultation and associated services.

The Institute is going from strength to strength. We launched an MSc in Military Veterans and Families Studies in 2013 and are now working with colleagues in the Department of Social Work to set up a second Masters in Military Social Work. This will be a first for British higher education. The appetite for this subject from students and employers alike is proof there is a need for greater focus on issues affecting the armed forces. Our network continues to grow and we now work with many organisations including the local army brigade; NHS Services; Combat Stress; SUFFER, the East of England Veterans Network, and BLESMA (British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association).

We’ve been successful in securing funding for some interesting research projects. Project Nova was an initiative launched in July 2014, and is an 18-month trial jointly delivered by RFEA – The Forces Employment Charity – and Walking With The Wounded. The trial is the first of its kind and will provide advice, guidance and support to veterans using a 'Nova Network' of military charities and organisations in Norfolk and Suffolk that can assist veterans depending on their individual needs.

Other studies of the Institute look at post operational stress management for both reservists and regulars. When one comes back from a tour of duty, how is one looked after? For reservists, this is partly the responsibility of the employer when the reservist returns from deployment to civilian life so this is a relevant  study that illustrates impact on industry also.

We are also collaborating with Northumbria University on a study that looks at the barriers to care. What stops veterans from seeking help for alcohol related problems? for example. These are just a few examples of emerging military social issues that have implications across the whole country.

The VFI has ambitious plans and is currently in the process of setting up an innovative information repository. This will be a one-stop hub for all kinds of information for veterans and families research. Supported by Lord Ashcroft, this ground-breaking and world-leading resource will be accessible to all, including policy-makers, third sector organisations, the media and the families of veterans. It will include information on all areas of health, not just psychological health.

Academics from across the country continue to share information via our virtual network, called VETERAN (Veterans Education Training Evaluation Research and Audit Network), in a bid to encourage future collaboration and research that will continue to lobby for changes in policy.

Research matters

What inspired you to do this research?
I was once a soldier before I became a psychologist, and was then a military psychologist for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). In the process of leaving my last post as Head of Defence Clinical Psychology and Defence Consultant Advisor in Psychology at the MoD I became acutely aware that there was this huge veteran population in the region who were under-served by previous studies. Anglia Ruskin University was amazingly open to my ideas and supported the creation of a research institute and an MSc in Military Veterans and Families Studies.

Any surprises?
I was positively surprised to see how many people across Anglia Ruskin were keen to get involved and work alongside colleagues within the Institute, offering their expertise and supporting cross-faculty collaboration. It has opened up new avenues for the future that I hadn’t necessarily envisaged

Why does this area of research matter?
Our research has the power to influence policy makers and government bodies at a local, regional and national level. It will, we hope, impact how departments such as the Department of Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, and the Ministry of Defence tackle the needs of veterans and their families. This can only be for the good of these people who have given so much, and of society as a whole.

1. According to Veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress

Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes founded the Veterans and Families Institute (VFI) in 2014. He is currently a visiting Professor of Military Psychology at Anglia Ruskin, having stepped down as Director to become President of the British Psychological Society. His research interests include the psychological effects of military service on ex-military personnel and their families and the impact of policy and services on serving personnel, veterans and their families. He is also interested in bio-psycho-socio-spiritual approaches to policy construction and practice delivery.