A Troubles veteran has spoken out about his ongoing battle with depression and suicidal thoughts in a bid to highlight the need for better support for ex-servicemen and women who are suffering mental ill health.
Co Antrim man Billy Henry, a former RUC officer who was “seconded to the armed forces” at the height of the conflict, has revealed how he has been struggling to cope with his condition, and even tried to take his own life when in the depths of despair.
While he hasn’t had a formal diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the 66-year-old says he has all the symptoms, and is convinced it was brought on by the harrowing events he was involved in and witnessed during The Troubles.
Mr Henry, a Mid and East Antrim DUP councillor, declined to go into detail about exactly what his role was while serving in the RUC in the 1970s and early 1980s. But while insisting he doesn’t regret his service, he does regret some of the things he was involved in at that time.
Clearly still concerned about his own security and the safety of his family, he revealed how he was discharged from the security forces in 1985 “on medical grounds”.
Since then he has suffered short periods of depression – often triggered by a particular news item or hearing a certain name or place – which tended to fade after a number of weeks. But in 2017 it “came in like a cloud” and failed to lift.
“I could feel it coming in and I knew right away this was a bad one. It came back and for whatever reason it didn’t go away, to the extent that at the beginning of 2018 I tried to commit suicide,” he explained.
“It was just getting worse – a gradual decline as far as my mental health was concerned and I just couldn’t seem to cope any more. I didn’t want to cope any more.
“From then I have tried to get help. But to be truthful there is no help out there for veterans. This is why I want to highlight this now.”
Mr Henry, who still has suicidal thoughts, says his condition manifests itself in a number of ways, making him emotional, anxious, nervous and often feeling hopeless.
“I have lost all confidence. I have lost all hope. I have lost all my faith. Now some mornings I want to get up and other mornings I don’t,” he said.
Having sought medical help last autumn, Mr Henry claims that after opening up to a doctor about his past he was told: “You know what you did, learn to live with it.”
The retired lorry and coach driver says he wasn’t offered any medication or referred to any other services that might be able to offer him help.
Since then he has contacted a number of organisations, but says he feels “trapped” as he can’t open up about many of the terrible things he experienced.
“There is absolutely no one that I feel I can share my problems with,” he said.
“I don’t know whether these organisations are secure or not. I need to know that there is somebody out there who is secure that I can talk to, that other veterans can talk to. We need to know that no matter what we say it won’t go anywhere else.”
While there are a number of veteran support organisations operating in Northern Ireland, Mr Henry says he wasn’t aware of them, and wasn’t signposted to them by the medical professionals or organisations he turned to for help.
“There are an awful lot of veterans out there and many of them need help – they are crying out for help,” he continued.
“The sad thing is there are people dying because they have no help and no one to talk to.”
Having decided not to seek re-election in the upcoming local government elections in May, Mr Henry said he wanted to make use of his public profile before then in a bid to help other veterans.
“Coming up to this election, I want the parties to knock their heads together and decide that in each council area, instead of the Veterans’ Champions we have now, there should be one person dedicated to helping veterans access the help and support they need. They don’t have to be an elected member or even a member of a political party, but they need somebody.
“If me speaking out can help one other veteran or save even one life then it will have been worth it. There are thousands more out there just like me and they are crying out for help and can’t get it. We have to do something to help them,” he added.
• Anyone experiencing distress or despair can call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000.
Veterans falling through the safety net
The chairman of Newtownards-based service charity Beyond the Battlefield estimates that some 17,000 military veterans in Northern Ireland have some form of mental health problem – whether diagnosed or not.
Ex-Royal Irish Ranger Robert McCartney, who himself suffered from PTSD, said veterans who suffer from the condition and associated suicidal thoughts often fall through gaps in the current safety net provided by the NHS and service-related charities.
Veterans seeking help and support can log on to www.beyondthebattlefield.org or call 028 9122 5610.