The government is today accused of “turning a blind eye” to concern that suicides among military veterans are spiralling after a Johnston Press investigation found that no comprehensive official records are kept of the number of British ex-servicemen and women taking their lives.
In stark contrast to allies such as the United States and Canada who monitor their ex-military personnel for life, the United Kingdom has no reliable system in place to track suicides among the nation’s 2.6 million veterans despite evidence that thousands struggle with serious mental health problems, including PTSD.
JP Investigations wrote to the 98 coroners in England and Wales, along with their equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to ask for records over the last three years on the number of suicides committed by people who had served in the armed forces. Just one was able to provide the data while 25 others replied saying no such information was kept or could not be searched for. Several coroners backed calls for such data to be kept in a readily-accessible format.
‘We can do better’ says NHS
In response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act, the Ministry of Defence told JP Investigations that it “does not hold information on the causes of death of all UK Armed Forces veterans”.
A senior NHS executive acknowledged earlier this month that “we can do better” on collecting data on veterans taking their own lives.
Suicide remains rare among military veterans and the last comprehensive study, completed in 2009, found the overall rate was comparable to the general population. Separate studies conducted among veterans of the Falklands War and the Gulf War found risk of suicide was lower than for the population as a whole.
But, despite the yawning gap in official records, there is evidence that a disturbing number of ex-soldiers - in particular among those who fought in the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - are taking their own lives or attempting to do so.
Johnston Press has established that at least 16 veterans are feared to have committed suicide since January, of whom at least seven are known to have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least two of the deaths involved individuals who were also part of British special forces while five were former members of the Royal Marines.
One veteran death every 11 days
Among the former soldiers to have taken their lives this year are 29-year-old Kevin Williams, who was the youngest British soldier to fight in Iraq when he was deployed on his 18th birthday. He took his own life at his home in Basildon in March after being diagnosed with PTSD and failing to keep appointments for treatment. His comrade and friend, John Paul Finnigan, 34, who served alongside him during some of the toughest fighting in Iraq, also killed himself 12 weeks later.
Our figures mean that ex-soldiers and sailors are killing themselves at a rate of one every 11 days. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014 the rate of British fatalities due to enemy action was one death every 14 days.
The government last week confirmed to JP Investigations that it has no suicide data relating to veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan but insisted it is “committed to undertaking this work”.
Campaigner Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004 and who has since become a leading voice on the treatment of veterans, strongly backed the investigation’s findings. She said: “The government is embarrassed in case the true figures come out. It’s wrong that the information on veteran suicides is not available.
“The situation for boys leaving the services is just as bad as it ever was. They come out of the services and many are struggling. They have lots flashbacks, they’re so depressed and just can’t handle it. A lot of them are lost, a lot don’t know where to turn.”
Figures from a published study by Combat Stress, the oldest and largest veterans mental health charity, are that 19 per cent of veterans it currently treats have moderate to severe suicidal thoughts.
Relatives, campaigners and professionals - including two coroners - told our investigation that they believed official figures for the number of suicides were vital to understanding the extent of serious mental health problems among veterans and focusing resources designed to assist former personnel experiencing a mental health crisis and prevent them from taking their own lives.
£22m a year for veterans mental health provision
After years of criticism, the government has begun to put significant resources into mental health provision for both serving personnel and veterans, amounting to £22m a year for the next decade. Among measures launched in the last 18 months is an online “Veterans’ Gateway” to streamline access to help and a tailored NHS service to help personnel leaving the armed services. A Veterans’ ID card to allow ex-servicemen and women identify themselves and access services is also in the pipeline.
But a large number of those interviewed by JP Investigations were sharply critical of the absence of reliable data, arguing that such information would be straightforward to collect from inquest proceedings.
The MoD told JP Investigations that it had “no ability” to direct coroners or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland but was consulting on methods to conduct a study of suicide rates among veterans from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A MoD spokesperson said: “While rates of suicide are significantly lower in the Armed Forces than the general population, any suicide is a tragedy for the individual, their family, friends and colleagues and we take each case extremely seriously.
“The reasons people take their lives can vary and are not necessarily linked to their service. Help is available for serving personnel, their families and veterans, including through the two 24-hour mental health helplines provided by Combat Stress.”