Much of the evidence to suggest early entry into the Armed Forces as a potential risk factor of developing mental disorders, is as a result on studies into child soldiers in war torn countries, and doesn’t seem to apply to those joining the UK Armed Forces as ‘juniors’ (16-17). This study in BMJ (British Medical Journal) from Scotland suggests the opposite, with longer service and better physical and mental health associated with junior entrants.
The study which was part of a wider analysis, ‘Trends in Scottish Veterans’ Health’, assessed a large number of veterans, a total of 78,395, who served between 1960 and 2017. This cohort was then compared against 252,637 individuals who were ‘non-veterans’.
Factors taken into consideration were: socioeconomic status which the researchers identified by registered postcode of residence and how this related to levels of social deprivation, presence of a mental health disorder in which they noted any diagnosis from International Classification of Diseases (ICD) on patient records and ‘early service leavers’ (ESL) who for whatever reason, couldn’t complete their full service.
The results of this study were particularly interesting as it pertains to adverse childhood events (ACE)
ACE’s are a included in risk factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD was the only disorder found in the study that bore a consistent risk to all veterans across age brackets, and times of service.
- See also: '‘Lessons from the Battlefield’ What can NHS frontline workers learn from veterans?'
- See also: 'New NHS service to improve veteran mental health'
- See also: 'Call for pre-emptive support for armed forces leavers'
However, the study commented that they found ACE’s to be a factor that encouraged young people to join military service at the junior entrant level, possibly to escape adverse circumstances at home or in their interpersonal lives; to a majority positive effect for those entrants.
The study mentions that this is supported by a recent Kings Centre for Military Health (KCMHR) study in which they found junior entrants has far more ACE’s than their adult entrant counterparts. This Scottish study for BJM actually found that the younger the entrant, the longer their service (on average an additional 5 years) all of which resulted in better mental health and physical health in general.
The study acknowledged that this is most likely due to the structured environment that junior entrants in the UK Armed Forces experience. At 16-17 it is a plainly educational, physical, trade and skills training experience teaching those entrants respect, life skills such as first aid and discipline from a young age.
An unexpected finding
Instead, the study found that those entering military service over the age of 20 were those most at risk of developing mental health problems, particularly PTSD. The researchers heading up this study suggested this may be due older entrants having a higher likelihood of experiencing stress inducing life events such as multiple job losses, unemployment, or pre-existing mental health problems that had resulted in an inability to sustain employment.
In conclusion, the presence of the UK Armed Forces’ integral welfare support, structured environment, opportunity to build resilience and discipline seems to provide a place for young people, especially those who may have experienced ACE’s, to apply themselves and improve their mental and physical health. These findings refute previous misconceptions that early entry into the armed forces can result in a vulnerability to developing mental health complications.