Rising concerns about suicide rates among military veterans

Some soldiers find serious mental health issues related to their service emerge years after they become civilians
Some soldiers find serious mental health issues related to their service emerge years after they become civilians
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Concerns among veterans about suicide rates are mounting – but figures are not formally collected, the Johnston Press Investigations Unit has found

Reporting by Philip Bradfield, Cahal Milmo, Aasma Day, Shan Ross, Dean Kirby, Paul Lynch, Ben Fishwick, Oliver Poole, Gavin Ledwith and Joseph Keith.

The government is today accused of “turning a blind eye” to concerns that veteran suicides are spiralling after a UK-wide Johnston Press investigation found that no significant records are kept of the number of ex-servicemen and women taking their lives.

Soldiers come under attack from a loyalist mob in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast near the Holy Cross Primary School in 2001

Soldiers come under attack from a loyalist mob in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast near the Holy Cross Primary School in 2001

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 post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

JP Investigations wrote to almost 100 coroners in Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, to ask for records over the last three years on the number of suicides 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 be searched for.

Veteran: suicide seemed like only way out - now I help others recover

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”.

“Not recording these figures makes it very easy for the MoD to turn a blind eye ... If it is possible to record these figures in America or Australia, why not in the UK?”

It is also clear that 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement many veterans of the Troubles across the UK are still fighting a deadly battle – with mental health.

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a former member of the Westminster Defence Committee and president of the UDR Association, is “very concerned” by the “appalling” rates. While the number of veterans he has dealt with personally is small “from contacts across the veterans’ community I can see that they are increasing in incidence” he said.

Unlike other parts of Great Britain there are no veterans’ centres in Northern Ireland. A recent survey by Ulster University found 66% of veterans would ‘definitely’ support the creation of one and a further 13% ‘probably’ would; their primary motivation was mental health support.

Col John Rollins, chief executive of the Reserves Forces and Cadets Association in Northern Ireland, says that while most veterans are healthy, their representatives say there is a significant mental health problem.

“My understanding is that they are highlighting the fact that we have sizeable numbers of veterans here who have needs that have not been recognised and dealt with the way they should,” he said.

RIR veteran Robert McCartney of Newtownards charity Beyond the Battlefield, estimates that out of some 150,000 veterans in Northern Ireland, some 300-450 attempt suicide each year, with 20-30 taking their life.

As no official records are gathered, his figures are impossible to validate.

UUP MLA Doug Beattie MC, a former RIR captain, believes the rate, while low, is rising and that veterans are too scared of security leaks to ask their GP for help.

“Terrorism was under the table and the forces of law and order were standing up tall, but now since the Belfast Agreement many veterans are afraid to say that they were in the military,” he said.

Suicide remains comparatively rare among military veterans and the last comprehensive study, completed in 2009, found the overall rate was comparable to the general population. But, despite the yawning gap in official records, there is evidence that a disturbing number of ex-soldiers are taking their own lives or attempting to do so.

Several Northern Ireland families whose loved ones were veterans and who died by suicide still found themselves too distressed to speak on the record about their ordeal.

Generally speaking, each Northern Ireland veteran interviewed knew personally of around half a dozen veterans who had died by suicide.

Johnston Press has established that at least 16 veterans across the UK are feared to have died by 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.

Simon Maryan, a former Royal Marine who jointly heads Veterans United Against Suicide UK, said he had he seen a rise in suicides and suicide attempts since the beginning of 2017.

He told JP Investigations: “It is unforgivable that we have no proper way of recording whether a suicide involves a veteran. It should be a mandatory requirement for the Ministry of Defence and coroners to ask if someone who has committed suicide had been in the services.”

He added: “Not recording these figures makes it very easy for the MoD to turn a blind eye ... If it is possible to record these figures in America or Australia, why not in the UK? It is a derogation of duty of care – bluntly, they have screwed these guys up, they should fix them.”

North West Wales Coroner Dewi Prichard Jones said he had no means to record such deaths. “Suicide is a favoured topic of public discussion at present,” he said. “If they could track veterans and do something on suicide that would be very helpful.”

However, the MoD told JP Investigations that provision of veterans’ mental healthcare is “primarily” the responsibility of the NHS and devolved administrations. It added that it had “no ability” to direct coroners or the procurator fiscal in Scotland to take records on the matter.

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.

“Our Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy is aimed at tackling the stigma around mental illness and we are working with charities and the Royal Foundation to enhance the support we offer for service personnel and veterans.”

A cross-government veterans strategy to take stock of how government supports veterans and identify areas for improvement is due for publication later this year.

• The News Letter will be carrying a series on this subject this week and next.

Veteran: suicide seemed like only way out - now I help others recover

HELPINE NUMBERS;-

UDR/RIR aftercare: 9042 0145

UDR Benevolent Fund: 9042 0137

RIR Benevolent Fund: 9042 0629

Veterans UK (MoD pensions/compensation): 0808 1914218

The Samaritans: 116123

Alcoholics Anon: 0800 8177 650

Vets’ Gateway: 0808 802 1212

Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619

Help for Heroes: 01980 844280

Royal B/Legion: 0808 802 8080

SSAFA: 080 731 4880

Soldiers Charity: 020 7901 8900