Bridging the gap: how volunteers help ex-service men and women to cope

A mentor speaks to a veteran

A Scottish charity project has been praised for addressing a gap in service provision for ex-service men and women who may be struggling to adjust to civilian life.

Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine is a unique volunteer mentoring project which recruits and trains volunteers to provide one-to-one mentoring support for veterans who are recovering from mental health issues or struggling to adjust to life after the military.

The two-year project supports ex-service men and women and their families in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and is delivered by volunteering charity TimeBank in partnership with the Scottish veterans’ charity Erskine.

Erskine has been caring for veterans in Scotland since 1916, including medical and nursing care and other support services, while TimeBank is a national charity which recruits and trains volunteers to deliver mentoring projects.

Their collaboration received praise in an external evaluation conducted by research consultancy, The Lines Between, which was launched at Westminster.


Among the “standout” points raised was that it “facilitates social integration without the stigma attached to a befriending model”, leading to an increase in the “confidence, self-esteem and social networks” of those who use the service.

The report said that it was “clearly meeting a need and addressing a gap in service provision.”

Helen Walker, chief executive of TimeBank, said that it was important that charities work together to address the range of needs experienced by ex-service men and women.

She said: “Many service veterans are in a state of crisis in their lives, with complex problems including financial hardship, homelessness, alcohol dependency and health issues.

“The struggle for them is to move on from the military and settle into civilian life, so support from both military and civilian charities, working in partnership, is vital to address their range of needs.

“We need to ensure we work together so that each veteran gets the support they need, whoever is delivering it.”

Currently, the Armed Forces community in Scotland is around 10% of the population – around half a million people – 230,000 of which suffer from long-term illness or disability.

According to data from Poppy Scotland, adult members of the ex-service community are  more likely to live alone than other adults in Scotland (41%, compared to 24%).

More than a sixth are affected by social isolation, while a tenth have long-term mental health problems and a fifth have had employment-related problems.

Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine actively encourage veterans to manage their finances, use public transport, take exercise and write CVs. Alongside this, they help them access local support services and sort out housing issues.

Volunteers also support veterans’ family members, who often face challenges in understanding and dealing with the issues their partner, son or daughter may be going through.

The report said the project had a “positive impact for both veterans and volunteers….the model is clearly effective in supporting transitions for many members of the armed forces community who are dealing with mental health and wellbeing issues.”

It also observed that volunteers on the project felt they had learned more about mental health issues and veterans’ support needs and gained a feeling of self-worth that came from doing something valuable.

It concluded that “the voluntary nature of the mentors’ contribution is a particular motivator and creates a social bond that encourages engagement in the project…the capacity to deliver support within communities can play a small but important role in changing perceptions of veterans with mental health issues and contributes to a shared understanding of experiences and issues.”

Ray Lock, chief executive of the Forces in Mind Trust, which funds the project alongside the Henry Smith Charity, said: “Mental health is one of the key challenges that ex-Service personnel can face when coming out of the Armed Forces.

“A better understanding of these challenges, and how best they can be overcome is invaluable to helping ex-Service personnel and their families have successful transitions into civilian life.

“The trust welcomes the findings of the evaluation of this pilot project and we look forward to seeing how this work develops in the future.”

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