A Help for Heroes mental health expert has issued advice to the friends and family of veterans suffering from mental health problems whose symptoms may be triggered by firework displays.
The unexpected sounds of exploding fireworks can have a traumatising effect for some veterans who are suffering from Post Tramatic Stress Disorder, as well as anxiety, stress or low mood, said Precious Charuma, psychological wellbeing practitioner team lead for Hidden Wounds at the Help for Heroes Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire.
For veteran Ken Nash, 39, who lives in Moulton, North Yorkshire, the noise of fireworks can cause flashbacks, making him think he is back under fire in a tank in Iraq. It can also make his heart pound and make him start sweating.
He said: “It’s not so much the planned events as I can prepare for those by calming myself down and preparing for it. I put on my headphones and watch a movie.
“It’s the unexpected, for example, a lad letting off a firework and throwing it into the garden.”
Ken, who served for 18 years with the 17/24s which became the Queen's Royal Lancers, was medically discharged in 2010 with PTSD. He served in Cyprus, Bosnia and Kosovo before Iraq.
His PTSD was caused by a series of incidents during his six-month tour of Iraq, culminating when the tank of which he was commander was attacked by 18 rocket propelled grenades. They were trapped in the situation for four hours of intensive attack
“Your adrenalin and training takes over but no amount of training can prepare you for such an event happening,” he said.
Once discharged, Ken spent a lot of time seeing different doctors and trying to come to terms with how his brain was reacting differently, especially to certain sounds and smells.
He was referred to a number of different agencies before somebody recommended he visited Phoenix House. It took Ken three attempts to walk through the door.
“Because it’s not a physical injury and you can’t see anything, it’s hard to admit to yourself that there is something wrong,” he said. “It’s easy to hide away behind closed doors.
“I was in denial and then my family broke up and I knew I had to do something. This manifested itself in different ways. I could not enjoy things I used to. I could be hypervigilant or over anxious. Certain things took me back to the event that caused my PTSD – loud noises, smells, like diesel, doors slamming, even my daughter sneezing.”
Precious said while most veterans suffering from mental health issues will not be affected, some will need some extra support as loud noises can trigger off flashbacks where they then relive the traumatic experience.
“It feels like they are right there and it can be very frightening,” she said. “It can be a particular sound or smell, which will trigger some symptoms. For some, even the smell of fireworks, not just the noise, will trigger a flashback.
“I spoke to someone this week, who literally fell to the ground and was shaking and really frightened when they heard a firework.”
Precious said signs for friends and family to look for include detachment or looking glazed.
She said: “It could also be a physical reaction so the person might duck down or hide in a corner or experience a panic attack, such as starting to breathe heavily or to shake.
“If you are with someone who you think is affected on Bonfire Night, you can use the ‘grounding’ technique to bring them back to the present moment and get them to calm down.
“One of the ways is a form of distraction so get them to a place where they feel safe and speak reassuringly to them and tell them they are okay. Ask them what they can see, what they can hear, ask what their name is is and be calm yourself so they feel safe.”
Precious also advised asking neighbours, if you are friendly with them, to let you know when they are letting off fireworks and explain you find the noise upsetting.
“People who think they may be affected can also wear headphones to take their mind of things and listen to music, which will hopefully drown out the noise as well. Try and have someone with you who is familiar with your condition so they can help,” she said.
Veterans who think they may be experiencing mental health problems can get in touch with the Help for Heroes Hidden Wounds programme, a psychological wellbeing service for veterans and military families who struggle with worry, stress low mood, anger or alcohol.
The Catterick Garrison Hidden Wounds Team
Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm on 0808-2020-144, which is free from UK landlines, firstname.lastname@example.org or Hidden Wounds page
Anyone who served in the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines or Royal Air Force who needs the support of Help for Heroes Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick can self-refer by calling 01748 834148.