Veteran Paul Colling discusses gaming, mental health and COVID-19 in support of the Hero Up initiative
COVID-19 has taken an unimaginable toll on the nation’s mental health. With the loss of many of our traditional support systems, we have all had to find new ways to stay connected.
Military veterans, particularly those who may have health conditions or limited mobility, face unique mental health challenges. Amidst concern about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on veterans’ mental health, Help for Heroes surveyed 1,161 wounded veterans and serving personnel to find out how it has affected them. They found that there has been a significant increase in the number of veterans who feel they aren’t managing their mental health (50%) and their physical health (48%) well compared to before the pandemic. It was also revealed that 40% of veterans and service personnel had experienced unavoidable delays to NHS services or treatment during this time.
Help for Heroes set up a wide range of digital services. They began to deliver online sleep management support and mental health therapy sessions via phone and video conference. They are developing online “health coaching” services to empower wounded veterans to gain the knowledge, skills, tools and confidence to take ownership of their health goals. This should allow service users to actively participate in their own care and increase engagement with treatment services when they become available. This is vital as the charity works to support the 34% who reported concerns about being able to access the NHS once restrictions ease.
Help for Heroes are delivering a number of services to minimise feelings of isolation and demotivation through virtual meetups and creating online sports and physical wellbeing activity schedules and Q&A sessions to keep veterans and families engaged.
One of the ways in which veterans are staying engaged is through online gaming. I spoke to Paul Colling, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Royal Corps of Signals to find out how gaming plays a vital part in the recovery of many veterans working with Help for Heroes, and how it is helping him and others stay connected during COVID-19.
A lifelong gamer, Paul told me about the importance of gaming both during and after his military career. Games were an important part of the bonding and camaraderie of Paul’s military service, and he spoke fondly of gaming during the acclimatisation period - a period of relative inactivity upon first arriving on deployment when soldiers’ bodies get used to the heat.
An injury sustained early on in his career was to have enduring consequences; Paul sustained a traumatic ankle injury, damaging the ligaments, tendons and cartilage during a training exercise.
Despite his injury causing him frequent bouts of pain, Paul went on to have a successful career training recruits. But in 2017 his career came to a sudden end; another training exercise had caused more damage.
Like many veterans, Paul struggled to adjust to civilian life. Despite having a lot of initial success, such as finding a new job with a waste management company that created stability, the soldier inside was at war with his new path, and Paul struggled mentally with the sudden loss of his military identity. Twice, he reached the point where he considered ending his own life.
A Help for Heroes coaching course provided a crucial turning point.
“The course helped me accept that I probably wasn’t 100% mentally where I thought I was. It made me see life from a different perspective and it’s also helped me help others along the way.
My career came to an abrupt halt… because of the kind of surgery I had, it was all leg-bound, so I was off my feet from anywhere from six months to a year to two years - at one point I had two years of straight operations on the bounce. I was in quite a low place at one point… At one point I didn’t want to be around anymore. Literally, I did not want to be around anymore and I was trying stupid things so I didn’t have to exist anymore or live.
Help for Heroes have always been there for me anyway. They did what they do best and they got me back on track. They got me focused, and while I was going through my operations, I turned to gaming to keep my mind focused.”
Paul was quick to draw parallels between his situation and the struggles people of all walks of life are facing in the current pandemic.
“Everyone will be able to relate to this in a way - the fact that COVID has done it to all of us, we’ve been isolated from who we normally spend our time with...The social aspect that we need in our lives to keep our mind on track.
When it all disappeared and you’re at home alone, and all you’ve got is your own mind to unwind and play tricks on you, because it does, no doubt we’ve all been there, where we’re making a situation that we think has all gone against us. When actually it’s gone a completely different way to how we see it.”
Many of us are struggling with mental health issues such as stress and anxiety at the moment. Financial hardship and insecurity are compounding these issues - particularly in the face of worrying headlines about the state of the charity sector, and a potential lack of funds leading to closures and lay-offs. This is only exacerbated by the loss of our normal way of life, and difficulty accessing our usual support systems.
Digital can provide us all with a way of staying connected. For Paul, and many others like him, gaming is providing a lifeline - a way of reaching out to friends, colleagues, and even strangers to get the human connection that we need to survive. In gaming, Paul was able to recapture the feelings of kinship and camaraderie that many veterans struggle to find after ending their military careers.
“Obviously, six months to a year, two years is a long time to be sat in bed… I didn’t want my mind to get the better of me again.
I already played games anyway. I carried on playing my computer, I got online and I got a lot more into it. I met a friend, a gamer who does streaming for a living… We just sat there talking to each other. I helped him get through his troubles, he helped listen to me while I went through my troubles. Some of my military community friends did the same.
It got me through some very hard times, where probably I wouldn’t have, where without Help for Heroes I wouldn’t have got through. But the gaming side certainly helped me keep my mind focused, occupied, keep me socialising. Because I’m not a person who can pick up a phone, I’m not a person who will just send a message off the bounce, that’s just not who I am. But I can soon pick up a game, play the game. The game sort of distracts me where I can just open up and talk.”
There’s a lot to this. Suicide is the biggest killer of young men in this country. Many campaigns, such as Heads Up, that are trying to fight this, and remove the stigma around opening up about your mental health, are realising that many men struggle to open up. We’re not taught how.
But by doing something we’re already comfortable doing, such as playing games or watching a football match with a friend, we can find it easier to open up. It’s not as intimidating when there is a focal point to the conversation.
“I can’t sit there with some of my closest friends in the military, that are my brothers now, and sit there over a table and just look at each other face to face and have a chat. But as soon as you pick up the controller… you don’t have to put a big beacon on it going ‘I’m coming round to talk and help you out, I know you’re in a bad place’. I’m coming round to enjoy a game of football while just airing it out and just knowing that you’re there listening to each other.
It just takes the edge of it… It makes it more acceptable in your mind.
It’s almost like an aid to get you to talk. It assists you.”
Recently, due to COVID-19, Help for Heroes launched Hero Up - an online fundraising initiative. Paul was keen to get involved and to help raise funds for an organisation that had offered him so much support. The digital fundraising initiative allowed the charity to replace traditional fundraising strategies, such as a sponsored walk, with something that could be done in the midst of a pandemic.
“Volunteering is quite powerful for me. It puts me around positive people doing good things for a better cause than just money or value. It’s got something social about it. If people want to volunteer, and do good and give back, it’s really empowering and it’s quite special really.”
As gaming had helped him in his recovery, Paul started a gaming team. Although gaming provided him with a focus, he still needed social interaction, and playing online with friends and others in his military community provided that.
“I’m a firm believer that when you get to a point in life where you’re happy - when you’ve got through your own battles, to turn back around to help other people… I wanted to give my life purpose.”
I asked Paul whether it was easier to talk to someone who had been through similar experiences. He paused for a while and then raised the point that for some of us, it can be easier to open up to a stranger.
“Sometimes, talking to a complete stranger who won’t judge you can help too.”
Gaming offers an opportunity for both, and Paul has been there for all manner of people during the last few months - friends, military veterans and strangers alike - ready to listen and offer support on his live stream.
A number of charities operate hotlines, where people who are struggling with mental health can phone in and talk to someone. We’re seeing a rise in the use of chatbots for these purposes. But what about the people that, like Paul, find it hard to open up without a focal point to the conversation? Gaming offers a way of reaching them.
“Military network aside, most people I game with I’ve never met. But we support each other still.
You’ve already got things in common. One, you’re both on the computer. Two, you’re playing the same game.”
But there are a number of risks involved. Paul offered advice on mitigating these. They used Discord to create a safe online space where people felt comfortable opening up.
“You can’t just join. You can’t just get in it. You have to be invited into it. So it’s safe.
We’ve got a very safe place where people can talk - where people can open up and be there for each other. It’s a platform that can help any charity be there for their beneficiaries… a safe platform where they can talk about what they want to do, how they want to do it or how they want to help.
All of us who play games often, we’ve all been there. There are toxic people out there. I didn’t even know what that meant until I started gaming. There are people out there who just want to be abusive and just want to mess up people’s day.
Having that safe space protects people from that - especially if they’re vulnerable.”
It’s very easy to do. As long as someone’s got a computer, and you don’t even actually need a computer, there are so many games on your phone, you can do it on your tablet.
It literally is as simple as turning a computer on, loading up a game and having a voice chat. Even on the Playstation if you don’t want the whole game to hear you, you can mute everybody else…. Or you can go into a private Playstation party and talk and network.
We had a meeting the other day, while we were playing Call of Duty we were talking about the next steps for the charity event.
We’re very much learning on our feet. My favourite line is ‘I’m winging it’.
Each day we adapt and we just do the best we can. We talk to each other.
It’s about asking the people around you ‘is this working?’”
“I want it to become a recovery pathway… We’re in this support network: we’re safe, we’re looked after. If we have a bad day or we have a wobble we’re alright.
But for the future and for people that are serving now, that are going through their career and don’t realise that their career is going to end yet, and don’t realise how sharp that cliff drop is, it’s having that support network of people who like gaming, who can use gaming,
People are going to need Help for Heroes forever. There’s no doubt there are going to be more conflicts in our lifetime.... It’s [about] having that network there that when people come here we have an open community and they can just jump right in and be part of it.
I want it to become a recovery pathway so that people can reach out and get help via gaming.”
“It’s hard to fundraise right now. Hero Up has given people a platform: it’s given people a purpose. Even with COVID-19, even if you’re not military-oriented… Hero Up gives people a direct link into the military community to raise money and to raise awareness.
It’s a brilliant platform. It’s even got a competitive leaderboard - but in a healthy way. Because we’re all doing it for the same cause.
The good thing about Hero Up, and about gaming, is that it’s got a bit of a competitive side to it where you want to go again - you want to earn more money, you want to get the message out there.
This country has got very generous people who are willing to give their money, who are willing to give their time, give their expertise so that people like me and the beneficiaries and our band of brothers and our community get the help they need.