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Army veteran with PTSD plans to work with NSFT mental health professionals
26/02/2015

An Army veteran from East Anglia who has pieced his life back together after developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is working with the mental health professionals to reach out to others suffering from the condition.

Luke Woodley, 41, of Costessey, near Norwich, joined the Coldstream Guards in 1990 and served as a Guardsman in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. It was following his six-month tour amidst the ethnic cleansing of war-torn Bosnia with NATO's UNPROFOR peacekeeping mission in 1993 that he developed PTSD.

Luke said: "It was Bosnia that affected me most. The things that I saw in Bosnia have dogged me from that time onwards. For me it started with sleepless nights and then it became panic attacks. I went to see the Medical Officer and was diagnosed with PTSD."

Luke, who grew up in Lowestoft and went to Kirkley High, had signed up for 22 years and saw the regiment as his life's career but his diagnosis was to end that career in 1997.  The Army's response to his PTSD has left a real feeling of regret.

"I was sidelined and sent to teach adventure training until I was medically discharged in 1997. There was no community psychiatric nurse available to me and I think the culture then was that a mental health problem was a sign of weakness.  I had seven years in service and it does fill me with sadness that my career was cut off," he said.

In civilian life his PTSD developed and despite seeing GPs who would prescribe anti-depressants he was struggling with the condition and feeling unable to find any effective help.

Luke's PTSD led to panic attacks, sleeplessness, problems with anger, heavy alcohol use, hypervigilance, flashbacks and feeling emotionally closed off. His marriage broke down.  

"I really didn't find my way to any form of help until 2003. Medication just anaesthetises you. I take the view now that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional," he said.

For Luke sounds and smells are all strong PTSD triggers; the smell of diesel, crowded public spaces, the sound of fireworks, overhearing people speaking Slavic languages.

Luke said: "I've never taken my kids to a fireworks show. Sounds are very difficult, especially Slavic languages, and there have been times when I've heard east European languages being spoken here in a supermarket and it's taken me back and I've got images from Bosnia popping through my mind."

In 2003 he got in touch with Combat Stress but Luke feels he really began to make sustained progress in 2005 when he met Dr Roger Kingerlee, clinical psychologist with Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

"I got to a place where I was getting very disillusioned. I felt that some of the help on offer was really just too much tea and sympathy and that wasn't any use to me. I was very down in my mindset. I didn't get how anyone was going to understand. Then I met Roger and he wasn't afraid to think outside the box and we came up with a plan designed to help me," said Luke.

Dr Kingerlee encouraged Luke to try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and to start exploring ways of confronting or dealing with triggers.

"It's about trying to piece the jigsaw of my mind back together. I went back to Eastern Europe, not to Bosnia but to Bulgaria. I'd spend a lot of time withdrawing and being alone.  I would go to remote areas, hills, mountains and think, make notes.  I even got noise-cancelling headphones to block out noise," explained Luke.

Luke's road to recovery has also opened his horizons to other approaches to mental health. "I met a Buddhist monk who mentioned meditation and I thought the guy might be on to something. CBT is very much like meditation and it's certainly helped me. I'm not cured but I can manage. There are days when I have to change my plans and I make sure I spend time maintaining my mental health.

Luke started going to the Buddhist Centre in Attleborough and organises drop-in sessions for veterans at the town's Royal British Legion.

For Luke, the next step is to work with Dr Kingerlee to provide help for veterans who are making the adjustment back into civilian life.

The pair are developing a Veterans' Stabilisation Programme to help adjust to civilian life and it's not just for servicemen and women but their families.

Luke said: "It's a programme designed to educate people. The analogy I use is that when you leave the forces you need to change your operating system from Windows Military to Windows Civilian. It's a different world and it works in a different way. There's lots of help out there but it can be difficult and confusing to find help. 

Luke is also hoping to become a Peer Support Worker with Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust. Dr Kingerlee said: "Luke has a lot of offer. He's been through it and has made his own recovery journey and he gets how ex-forces people think. He speaks their language and that's a huge asset to us."

As for the future, Luke is now in a settled relationship and expecting a child. "It feels like having been a father for the first time. In the past I was so closed off, I wasn't really connected," said Luke.

The Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust works with range of charities that help veterans and you can get more information by clicking here.

 

Notes:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.

The type of events that can cause PTSD include:

  • serious road accidents
  • violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
  • prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
  • witnessing violent deaths
  • military combat
  • being held hostage
  • terrorist attacks
  • natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis

     

PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later. PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it's not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don't.

It is normal to experience upsetting and confusing thoughts after a traumatic event, but in most people these will improve naturally over a few weeks.

You should visit your GP if you or your child are still having problems about four weeks after the traumatic experience, or if the symptoms are particularly troublesome.

If necessary, your GP can refer you to mental health specialists for further assessment and treatment. PTSD can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event.

Any treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event. Any of the following treatment options may be recommended:

  • watchful waiting - waiting to see whether the symptoms improve without treatment

  • psychological treatment - such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)

  • antidepressant medication

     

Notes:

The Bosnian War was an international armed conflict that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between April 1992 and December 1995. The war came about as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia and was characterised by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape. Events such as the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre became iconic of the conflict.

In 1995 peace negotiations were held in Dayton, Ohio, and were finalised on 21 December 1995. The most recent figures suggest that around 100,000 people were killed during the war. In addition, an estimated total of 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped, and over 2.2 million people were displaced, making it the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

The United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, was the first United Nations peacekeeping force in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Yugoslav wars. The force was formed in February 1992 and its mandate ended in March 1995. UNPROFOR was composed of nearly 39,000 personnel, 320 of whom were killed on duty. It was composed of troops from Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.‚Äč