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Study suggests UK veterans are not at increased risk of negative outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic

Study suggests UK veterans are not at increased risk of negative outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic

Veterans Medals
Photo Credit: Allan House, Defence Imagery (www.defenceimagery.mod.uk)

New research from King’s suggests that UK ex-service personnel (veterans) are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in similar ways to the general population.

New research from King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) has found that UK veterans do not report higher levels of common mental health disorders, alcohol misuse, or loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the general population.

The study, published in BMJ Open, investigated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and well-being of UK veterans before and during the pandemic using data from a longitudinal cohort study of the UK Armed Forces.

The researchers sent questionnaires to 3,547 veterans who served during the Afghanistan/Iraq era, which followed up on a previously completed health and well-being questionnaire in 2014-2016. COVID-19 experiences and stressors during the first phase of the pandemic, including infection with COVID-19, bereavement, and employment changes, were measured to investigate how these experiences had impacted mental health and well-being.

Overall, the veterans reported a significant decrease in hazardous alcohol use during the pandemic, although still used alcohol at higher rates than the general population. In contrast with increased rates of common mental health disorders seen in the general population, veteran mental health remained stable before and during the pandemic. The stability of mental health disorders in the veteran group may indicate resilience due to previous training in readiness for deployments and coping strategies.

Overall the results of our study found that veterans were doing well in difficult circumstances during the first phase of the pandemic. Whilst we did see an impact on their mental health, which was consistent with previous levels in this cohort, reductions in hazardous alcohol use were positive.”– Dr Marie-Louise Sharp, the study’s Lead Author from King’s IoPPN

Nonetheless, of the group reporting common mental health problems, 57% reported new onset of mental health difficulties since pre-pandemic levels in 2014-2016, highlighting the importance of continued improved provision of mental health support services for veterans.

Rates of loneliness in veterans was comparable to the general population. Stressors such as difficulties with family or social relationships, caring responsibilities, boredom, and health problems were associated with higher rates of common mental health disorders, hazardous alcohol use, and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, even when controlling for pre-pandemic mental health and well-being.

 

With the changing needs of the Afghanistan/Iraq era veteran group, it is essential that we continue to monitor their long-term health and well-being to provide robust evidence and target support effectively. – Dr Marie-Louise Sharp

The authors conclude that veterans are experiencing the pandemic in similar ways to the general population, and in some cases have responded with resilience. The significant reduction in alcohol misuse is a positive change and may suggest alcohol use was not being used as a coping strategy during the pandemic. The authors will continue to follow up on the long-term health and well-being of this group throughout the pandemic and beyond.

The pandemic has been a difficult time for many people across the country, including veterans. But it's reassuring to see from this research that veterans have not been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and have made a real difference to their communities by volunteering during the height of the pandemic. I'm grateful to King's College London for this new research and I encourage those veterans who may be struggling to access the support they deserve."– Leo Docherty, Minister for Defence People and Veterans

This research was funded by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs which leads the UK Government efforts to improve support services for veterans and their families.

Sharp M-L, Serfioti D, Jones M, et al. UK veterans’ mental health and well-being before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open 2021;0:e049815. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-049815

For more information, please contact Patrick O’Brien (Senior Media Officer)

For information on mental health support services for veterans please see NHS Op COURAGE , Combat Stress, Help for Heroes, and for broader support needs and signposting Veterans’ Gateway