James Heappey Weekly Column

I've just been watching a video of the most senior serving soldier in the British Armed Forces talking about mental health. He's a giant of a man, immaculate and seemingly invincible and yet there he is looking down the camera telling soldiers, sailors, airmen and veterans that it's ok to admit to mental health issues. He encourages us to talk about them, makes clear that there's nothing weak about doing so and because of who he is, it's pretty damn clear that he expects the chain of command to be following his example.

When I first deployed to Kabul in 2005, there were protocols for how we'd keep an eye on each other after a difficult patrol or a major trauma but I can't imagine many of my soldiers - and certainly not my non-commissioned officers - wanting to share any concerns about their mental health. In Basrah two years later, the frequency of those traumatic events meant that those discussions became more routine but there was a stigma around those who couldn't continue in their frontline role because of their mental health. In Sangin two years after that, the change was almost complete. Mental illness was widespread and it was treated in the same way as any physical injury. People were given the time and treatment needed to recover and then they cracked on without prejudice.

However that was on operations when cause and effect required little explanation. A decade later and servicemen and women are encouraged to talk about their mental health even if they've not just been shot at or blown up. It's a sign of how far our Armed Forces have come but also our society too. In Mental Health Awareness Week, it's an opportunity for us all to reflect on how comfortable we are talking about own mental health, and just as importantly, how comfortable we are listening to those who want to tell us about theirs.