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Conference tackles drugs and alcohol misuse in the armed services

20th November 2017

A conference co-organised by Northumbria University and the Royal British Legion in Newcastle looked at why military veterans find it difficult to get help for alcohol and substance misuse.

It follows research from Northumbria University's Northern Hub for Veterans and Military Families, funded by the Royal British Legion, which warns that veterans from recent conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq are likely to hit ‘crisis point’ in the coming years over drugs and alcohol abuse.

For many veterans, excessive alcohol consumption was the norm during service, but a study by The Northern Hub for Veterans and Military Families Research found that it took, on average, 18 years for a veteran with substance misuse (primarily alcohol) to engage with meaningful help.


Northumbria University Veteran's Conference from Northumbria University on Vimeo.

Dr Matt Kiernan, a former Lieutenant Commander in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service, led the research. He said: “Given the nature of conflict and the intensity of conflict that younger veterans have been involved in, there is a potential that we’re going to see a lot more significant problems in the coming years around substance misuse in the broader term. I think we need to be ready for that and I think we need to start planning how we manage for that and engage with those veterans.”

Marcus Hawthorn, Area Manager for the Royal British Legion, said: “We welcome the research which unpicked potential barriers to veterans accessing treatment, particularly stigma and military culture, as well as the complexities of the NHS system. We now need to talk about how we assess these barriers, alongside better education and awareness of veterans’ healthcare needs. 

“The conference brought together all the key players in the North East region so we can work together to produce a better care pathway for veterans. This isn’t just about funding, it’s about being creative, working better together, being more efficient and enabling better outcomes for veterans.

“We are also working with the MoD to address alcohol use in Service and praise the MoD for their work so far.”

Military veteran Ger Fowler from Sunderland spoke at the conference. He said:  “It’s good to see the Royal British Legion funding research here in the North East – Sunderland alone has 26,500 veterans, and has the largest Remembrance parade outside of London.

“Drugs and alcohol are definitely a problem in military life, alcohol in particular is embedded in the culture.  In good times and bad, service men and women turn to alcohol; as long as you did your job the next day, nobody would bat an eyelid. 

“Things are getting better, the military are more aware of the problem these days, but a lot of younger service personnel use drugs rather than alcohol.

“One of the biggest problems with veterans is pride – they won’t ask for help even when they hit rock bottom.  But pride often leaves them on the streets.  The support is there for our veterans, and it’s very good, but they need to access it.

“I suffered from PTSD after a five-year military career, which included 18 months in Northern Ireland. I was a survivor of the Ballygawley bus bombing in 1988, simply because I got off the bus before the explosion, but it affected me. Eight of my colleagues were killed by an IRA roadside bomb. I turned to drugs and alcohol during service and although I wouldn’t say I was an addict it definitely impacted on my mental health.

“When I returned to Civvy Street, I ran a bakery for a while but gave it up and decided to use £10,000 of my own money to help other veterans.  Thanks to additional funding from the Royal British Legion, I’ve helped more than 60 veterans through my Homeless Veterans Service and it’s taken over my life for the past five years - 20 of my clients helped with the Northumbria University study. One client was drinking 18-litres of white cider a day – I didn’t think that was physically possible.

“Helping veterans is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, I love it and I’ll do it for the rest of my days. There is no better feeling than helping people.”

For more information about The Northern Hub for Veterans and Military Families Research visit 

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