Army rejects call for mental health checks

Image caption Corporal James Ross died an accidental death in December 2012, an inquest found

The British Army has rejected calls for mandatory mental health screening for serving soldiers, the BBC has learned.

Regular screening was recommended by a coroner following an inquest into the deaths of two infantrymen found hanged in the same Northern Ireland barracks.

But in a leaked letter, Gen Sir Nick Carter, head of the armed forces, said screening was “potentially harmful”.

Human rights charity Liberty, which represents the mothers of the soldiers, said it was concerned by the decision.

An inquest this year found that Corporal James Ross, 30, died an accidental death in December 2012, while the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide on the death of Rifleman Darren Mitchell, 20 – less than three months later – in February 2013.

Both men were serving with the 2nd Battalion The Rifles and had previously been in active service in Afghanistan.

They were based at Abercorn Barracks in Ballykinler, County Down, when they died.

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Image caption A coroner recorded a verdict of suicide on the death of Rifleman Darren Mitchell

Following the inquest, Joseph McCrisken, the coroner for Northern Ireland, criticised the Army’s poor record-keeping, which meant crucial records for the two dead soldiers were missing.

This included post-deployment monitoring reports, up-to-date records of malaria jabs, as well as the recommendations of its own service inquiry into their deaths.

The inquest also heard about eight documented cases of self-harming by soldiers at the barracks.

Mr McCrisken said he would write to the Army to recommend more proactive mental health testing, saying: “I believe the Army could carry out mandatory screening for mental health problems on a more regular basis.”

‘Potentially harmful’

However, a letter seen by the BBC has revealed the Ministry of Defence rejected his proposal.

Gen Carter said the government had funded university research into the role of pre-deployment mental health screening – looking into a soldier’s state of mind ahead of active duty.

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He said it showed screening was ineffective in predicting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or encouraging personnel to come forward to seek help.

In the letter, dated 29 May this year, he told the coroner: “As a result we were convinced that mental health screening shortly before deployment is not just ineffective, but potentially harmful.”

Pre-deployment mental health screening does not reduce the rate of post deployment mental

health problems and fails to accurately detect those at risk of poorer post-deployment mental health.

He said further research on soldiers returning from Afghanistan showed “conclusively” that there was “no case to start a programme of post-deployment mental health screening”.

The Army currently operates a mental health helpline and, together with Samaritans, has published a guide helping serving personnel spot when colleagues may need support.

Image copyright PA Media

Emma Norton, solicitor for the two soldiers’ families and head of legal casework for Liberty, said there was still “a very serious problem” within the forces.

“The families are really devastated, not only at the way in which the MoD conducted itself during this inquest towards them; they are also very saddened by the response of the head of the Army to the coroner’s perfectly reasonable recommendation.”

Carol Mitchell, the mother of Rifleman Mitchell, added: “The only person that can keep your son safe is you, because the army will not.”

An MoD spokesman said the Army offers “robust mental resilience training and support before, during, and after deployment”.

“We are always looking to adapt and improve the help we offer, which includes peer to peer support programmes to help personnel spot when someone is struggling, and a 24-hour mental health helpline so there is always somewhere to turn in times of crisis.”

Listen to BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight at 22:00 on weekday evenings or catch up at BBC Sounds.

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