Spotlight On - the Veterans Service

Posted by Devon Partnership Trust in News on 10th April, 2024

We spoke to Alison Gardner, Becky Last and Claire Whitfield from the Veterans Service about the specialist support they offer, some of the challenges they face, and what motivates them.

What is the main purpose of your team? And what does a typical day look like?

Becky: We support veterans across Devon (excluding Plymouth) who are concerned about their mental health. We are the first point of contact for people aged 18 and over who have completed one day’s service or more with the British Armed Forces. We also see anyone in the Merchant Navy working in support of military operations.

We offer assessments for military-related trauma, consultation advice, signposting and referral to the most appropriate service to meet the veteran’s needs. While we do not provide a care coordination role, we can remain with veterans until their care and treatment plan is established, working with assessors and care coordinators to ensure they receive appropriate care and support.

Claire: Our days are really varied, ranging from carrying out full mental health assessments to triaging referrals. We also perform medication reviews and liaise with other services that provide pathways such as Op COURAGE and Help for Heroes. We also support families and partners of veterans in our care.

Alison: We liaise with lots of organisations, including LiveWest for housing support and military-related accommodation and the Veterans Welfare Service for things like pensions and compensations.

Becky: Common issues that crop up for our clients are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and adjustment disorder, as well as depression and anxiety. We also regularly see complex pain or pre-service trauma. We find that younger veterans can be more at risk because some of them have been discharged unexpectedly and this can impact their whole life. We often find that the longer someone has been in the service, the more difficult it can be for them to ask for help. Sometimes veterans think they should be able to deal with what they’re going through on their own, they may think their ‘problem’ isn’t severe enough, or they may lack trust in NHS services. We’re determined to break down these barriers.

Claire: We’re specialised to recognise military difficulties and understand it might take a while to get a disclosure. We will stick by the veteran until they get what they need.

What are your team’s current priorities?

Becky: The people on our case load are our priority. We also need to make sure veterans are looked after under the Armed Forces Covenant and make other people aware of the Covenant.

Another priority is raising awareness of our service, both internally and externally. We do a lot of outreach work with military charities and organisations to let them know what support we offer.

What qualifications and training do the team have? And what career paths have you taken?

Alison: My background is in mental health nursing. I’ve worked in substance misuse services and in women’s refuges. I’m also a non-medical prescriber and trained in Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR).

Claire: I’m also a mental health nurse and have experience working in a whole range of services. Including; social care, psychology, drug and alcohol services, elderly inpatient care and acute inpatient care.

Becky: I’m an assistant practitioner (AP) – I was actually the first AP in Community Mental Health Team at DPT! I used to work for a substance misuse service in Torbay and for the Torbay Council homelessness team. I was also a military wife, which drew me to this role and helped me understand the culture of the people we’re supporting.

What are some of the challenges the team faces?

Claire: We often find that colleagues aren’t aware of us and the extensive support we provide. This service originally started as a peer support group to connect veterans, but it’s completely different now. We’ve really grown and developed. It’s now become more clinical and evolved to be treatment and recovery-focused.

We welcome colleagues to contact us with any queries – whether you want to find out more about our work or are unsure about a referral, just email us and we can help. We’re also really happy to come and speak about our service at team meetings. 

Becky: It can also be a challenge getting the covenant pathways recognised. Staying on top of all the charities and services available and how they can change can also be difficult. However, even though we’re a small team, we’re proud that we have no waiting list.

What do you enjoy most about being part of this team?

Claire: Each other! I really enjoy working with Alison and Becky. We’re a small team, but we all get on so well. I also really enjoy that in this role you see people get better. You’re with them throughout the whole journey and that’s rewarding.

Alison: I’m the newest member of the team but I’ve been so welcomed and supported by Claire and Becky. It’s also a privilege to work with the veterans.

Becky: We support one another and we have a good sense of humour. The veterans often have a great sense of humour too. Our conversations can be very serious, and we uncover some difficult issues, so those light-hearted moments are important. I love working with veterans – there’s always something we can offer them which feels satisfying.

What motivates your team and what achievement are you most proud of?

Becky: I’m proud of all our work. Without our team, many veterans wouldn’t get the support they desperately need. It’s also an honour when someone trusts you enough to tell you their problems.

Alison: I feel proud when we stabilise someone. I had one client who I genuinely thought was going to die. I referred him somewhere and his life transformed. He would have slipped through without our care.

Claire: I worked with someone who was very unwell when he came to see me. I referred him to treatment and I saw him every week for a year. We did a lot of work together and built a strong sense of trust. It was amazing to see the improvements he had made after that year together. I really enjoy meeting patients. It’s why we come to work.

What is the best bit of feedback you have received from a patient or service user?

Alison: We get lots of lovely feedback from veterans we’ve supported, including this recent email:

“I don’t know where I would have been if it wasn’t for Alison relentless support and top cover. I’m sure my many colleagues that are unfortunately not here would have probably still been here if they had the support I’ve been so lucky to receive. No other service has given me this type of support and tools that have enabled me to totally turn my life around for the first time in 20 years. Alison held my hand through it all, called out agencies that fell short of doing their jobs and helped me build my confidence back. I’m now in better shape than I’ve ever been. I will never be able to thank her enough.”

Becky: I love hearing the difference we make to people’s lives. It keeps you motivated and pushes you to be the best version of yourself. One client text me saying: “Thank you so much for your support and assistance today, I think you deserve a promotion!”

Claire: It’s really lovely when you get feedback. When someone gives you a card, or an email saying thank you, it means a lot.

What do you and your team do to unwind?

Claire: I enjoy cold water swimming, which I do at Budleigh. It really helps me relax.

Alison: I like going to the gym. Every Friday morning I get up early and go to different classes including toning and weights, aqua, or Pilates.

Becky: I work part-time so I get time for myself in the week which is nice. I don’t do a huge amount on my days off but I think it’s important to have a break from work.

And finally… how would you sum up your team in one word?

Becky: Effective – but also nice, helpful and approachable!

Alison: Accessible

Claire: Professional