Leadership is about doing, not saying. It is time with regard to Mental Health training and awareness, for senior leaders to ‘walk the walk and not just talk the talk.’

There was a slight nervousness in the faces of General Sir Nick Carter, Admiral Tony Radakin, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith and Air Chief Marshall Sir Mike Wigston, collectively known in defence as ‘The Chiefs’ in a video they released collectively to mark World Mental Health day on Saturday 10th October.

“During these important times it’s more important than ever that we take notice of our mental wellbeing and that of our colleagues, our friends and our family and particularly those we lead,” said Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, opening the video.

“Since the publication of the Armed Forces Mental Health Strategy 2011, the mental health and wellbeing of our Defence People has been a subject of substantial investment and focus. The next five years will see a period of sustained focus on mental health and wellbeing. We need to engage everyone in Defence, at all levels, if we are to maintain a mentally healthy population,” said Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, then Chief of Defence People, in his foreword to The Defence People Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2017-2022.

So, do the senior leaders in Defence lead by example when it comes to Mental Health, we are 3 years into the 5 year strategy building on the 2011 foundation?  This is a very difficult question to get a tangible answer to as, despite their underlying nervousness, ‘The Chiefs’ were advancing a more positive mental health message in their video, which is good. They were talking the talk.

Not being satisfied with the substance behind some of the MoDs ‘talk’ a little digging was done.  That digging found out that, “The MoD does not mandate any formal recorded Mental Health training for Senior Officers.”

That is fine in itself as the Armed Forces Mental Health Strategy was published in 2011 giving a long time to get training in place and develop a culture of it being “must do” for leaders, as that is setting an example. After all the Australian Navy says, “Leaders acknowledge the moral equality of all who serve and build a climate of mutual respect.” That is simply leading by example and the training exists in various guises.

In addition, our senior leaders have a command function and that is a legal function, requiring set, auditable standards to ensure consistency and fairness in their judgements. They, in various guises, are the ultimate arbiters with complaints, they set the moral policy across defence and rule on areas where they feel it has been broken. You can’t do that on ad hoc knowledge.

So, what is the reality of how the senior leadership of all three services approach the example they set to mental health awareness and training. It is recognised there is a lot of mental health awareness briefing going on across defence, but given ‘Command’ has a legal status, ad hoc briefing isn’t good enough.

According to ‘The Chiefs’ and the Armed Forces Mental Health Strategy, mental health is engaging everyone and is getting substantial investment; therefore, formal training is critical to ensure the foundation for that legal status Command empowers so that it is consistent and auditable.

Armed with positivity from the Chiefs talking the talk, the MoD was asked about formal mental health training in the senior officer cohort, so RN Captain, Army Colonel and RAF Group Captain (OF5) and above. These ranks and above are those in the most senior command positions, those that should set examples to their subordinates across defence.

The statistics speak for themselves, OF 5 is Captain (RN), Colonel, Group Captain and they go up from there so in Army parlance, OF 6 is Brigadier, OF 7 Major General and on:

Rank  Number of Officers            Number MH Trained          Percentage

RN (including RM)

OF9                2                                  0                                              0%

OP8                7                                  0                                              0%

OF7                32                                4                                              12.5%

OF6                85                                9                                              10.6%

OF5                297                             2                                              0.67%

Total:             423                             15                                            3.55%

Army

OF9                4                                  0                                              0%

OP8                16                                2                                              12.5%

OF7                42                                3                                              7.1%

OF6    Brig     147                             14                                            9.5%

OF5    Col      517                             3                                              0.58%

Total:             726                             22                                            3.03%

RAF

OF9                3                                  0                                              0%

OP8                6                                  0                                              0%

OF7                28                                0                                              0%

OF6                83                                4                                              4.82%

OF5                286                             1                                              0.35%

Total:              406                             5                                              1.23%

What makes the statistics worse if that could be possible, is that none of ‘The Chiefs,’ the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet, Chief of the General Staff or Chief of the Air Staff have completed any recorded training course and only seven 2 star (OF7) officers in ‘Command Positions’ across defence have done so, none in the RAF. Is this leadership by example?  It is clear that our senior leaders in uniform and worse, those in command positions, do not walk the walk.

Karen McLeish whose teenage son Alistair was found hanged in a bathroom at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, told Mark Nicol of the Mail on Sunday, ‘This is a shocking disclosure. The MoD constantly says it is committed to soldiers’ mental health. Yet how can they be when so few officers are trained in this area and when the course is voluntary? This is the wrong attitude; the MoD must properly accept its responsibilities otherwise troops will continue to suffer in silence until it is too late to help them.’

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee said to mark Nicol of the MoD figures: ‘It is sad to see an important initiative, not being welcomed by the officer class. Their absence and non-participation is concerning given the genuine efforts the imbalance in support for mental versus physical health.’

In essence, actions speak louder than words, is what the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell, said of leaders when he uttered the words, “The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”  Is this leadership by example?

The gauntlet has been thrown down, how many more lives must be destroyed or lost before the senior officer cohort in Defence stop talking the talk and actually walk the walk? When will command recognise the need for moral leadership, leadership by example? When will defence recognise the need for consistent auditable activity in its people sphere?

I personally had a senior officer record in interview notes after interviewing me, “I wish to formally record my concern for the welfare and wellbeing of this officer,” and he then did nothing but watch my life fall apart over the next few years. He took great delight in highlighting to his bosses that he showed concern by noting his concerns, he talked the talk, but his inaction in looking after me or even talking to me and telling me of those concerns, demonstrated he didn’t walk the walk. Defence tried every trick in the book to stop me getting a copy of his interview notes, they failed, so, yes, it is personal!

If the Chiefs say, “People are our most important asset,” yet this is the example they set, how can they be trusted with less important issues such as equipment capabilities as are being debated as part of the Integrated Defence and Security Review. Where does the responsibility ‘buck’ stop?

{All answers were provided by the MoD under a FOIA request that asked about any and all formal MH training. The MoD provided all of the answers and were approached by the MoS for comment, providing only a holding reply, they won’t talk to Philip Ingram as he is on Defences naughty step.}

 

Philip Ingram MBE is a PTSD survivor no thanks to the MoD; he is available for comment please just visit the Contact Us page for details.