Abandoned: 4,000 Sunderland war heroes suffering severe mental health problems

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MORE than 4,000 Sunderland veterans have been abandoned after returning from war with severe mental health problems.

The city’s leading forces support agency today demanded that more be done to help soldiers left unable to cope on their return to civvy street.

Sunderland Armed Forces Network (SAFN) estimates that about 4,160 of the 26,000 veterans currently living in Sunderland are suffering from some form of mental health issue.

While a small minority of these have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the majority of their problems are caused by issues such as loneliness, lack of accommodation, poor job prospects and a general lack of support.

Many of those returning lack basic, day-to-day life skills such as paying bills or budgeting.

SAFN chairman Graham Hall said: “These are very proud people who are not used to asking for help.

“They regard asking for something as charity and, all too often, pride comes before a fall, and they are left isolated.

“With Iraq and now Afghanistan, there is, over the coming years, going to be a real long-term issue in helping these people who are returning from war and struggling to cope with their own lives.”

Since it was established three years ago, SAFN has successfully worked with 186 veterans, providing them with vital support in rehousing, finding jobs, seeking medical help and readjusting to life.

With so many veterans turning to alcohol and drugs to cope, SAFN has also enlisted the help of the city’s NHS services.

Last year, medics from NHS Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group signed up to Wearside’s armed forces covenant in a bid to provide better support.

But Mr Hall says more still needs to be done: “We need better communication between the Ministry of Defence and local authorities so that these people don’t get lost in the system.”

While Wearsiders’ generosity to forces charities like Help the Heroes is widely recognised, it is hoped that more can be done in the future to make sure money donated in the city stays in the city.

Up to 8,580 Wearside military personnel returning from the front line are likely to find themselves homeless, while 3,380 will end up dependent on drink or drugs, often leading to them having no place to live. The covenant was first announced in May 2012 when the city’s adopted warship, HMS Ocean, berthed at the Port of Sunderland.

It aims to get agencies across the city involved in offering support to the tens of thousands of city veterans.

Councillor Harry Trueman, deputy leader of Sunderland City Council and its designated armed forces champion, said: “As a council, we work closely with health partners and the network.

“In November last year, the city’s GP practices signed up to our armed forces covenant, which recognises our community commitment to current and ex-service personnel.

“With more than 26,000 forces veterans around our city, this covenant encourages everyone in the community to offer support to service personnel, families and veterans.

“Personnel current and former can all access the help and support that is available through the council, the health service and with voluntary groups.

“The council works very closely with SAFN, and genuine outcomes are being achieved for veterans around the city by working in partnership with the network.

“The true value of the network is now being realised, and the council remains committed to supporting it and delivering sustainable outcomes for those who have served our country.”

£100,000 fundraising target set

SUPPORT organisations still need £100,000 in a bid to open Sunderland’s first home for war veterans.

The cash is needed to renovate a property at the Elms in Ashbrooke into accommodation for former soldiers struggling to cope with life outside the military.

Similar centres operate in Newcastle and Gateshead, but Sunderland has long been identified as an area in desperate need of a home for veterans fallen on hard times.

Now, bosses at Norcare, a charity set up to help vulnerable ex-servicemen and women, are organising a series of events they hope will help raise money for the city’s veterans’ centre.

Phil Thompson, a manager at Norcare, said: “We are applying for further funding through the local authorities and through armed forces charities.

“We had hoped to get somewhere opened in Sunderland earlier than this as we recognised there was a need for it in the city.”

Former military personnel from the city who find themselves homeless are having to use the Newcastle and Gateshead centres.

There are currently about six people waiting for every bed space in the Tyneside centres.

The British Army recruits 28 per cent of its manpower from the North East, meaning the whole region is left to cope with thousands who no longer feel they have a place in society once they return.

Graham Hall, of SAFN, said: “This type of development, which we hope will be supported by the wider Sunderland community, also gives the private sector the opportunity to show their support.

“This project will not go through without the funding in place, and this is something Norcare are working very hard to secure.”

On Saturday, scores of people took part in the Warrior Beach Assault at Whitley Bay promenade, a gruelling six-mile obstacle course, to help raise money for the Sunderland veterans’ centre.