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.
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.
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.
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 or NHS records.
In America, where the death records of every veteran are collected by a dedicated Washington department, the suicide rate increased by 35 per cent between 2001 and 2016. A study by the Department for Veteran Affairs found that in 2015 the suicide rate was 2.1 times higher among US former military personnel compared with the civilian population.
In Australia, an official report in January this year found the suicide rate from 2002–2015 was 14 per cent higher among male veterans than all Australian men, after adjusting for age.
A Canadian government study based on records from 1976 to 2012 found that its veterans were at a “significantly higher risk of death by suicide” compared to civilians. The age-adjusted suicide rate for male veterans was 40 per cent higher compared to civilians and for female veterans the figure was 80 per cent.
There is no such equivalent information for the United Kingdom.
A leading clinician at Combat Stress, which is currently treating more than 3,000 veterans, said reliable suicide data was vital to understand whether Britain was experiencing a similar sharp increase to its allies and the lack of this data is a “red light” for those working with ex-servicemen and women.
Dr Dominic Murphy told JP Investigations: “We don’t actually know those rates. From the mid-noughties onwards there has been a higher rate of suicide among American, Canadian and Australian veterans and some of our European allies and we just don’t know [the situation] in the UK because the last study was in 2009.
“One could argue that it might coincide with the end of… the active war fighting phase in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are still low prevalence rates but any increase is very worrying, it is a very negative outcome. For me it is a red light that we need to actually fill this gap with data.”
A former head of the Royal Navy expressed his surprise at the lack of suicide records. Admiral Lord West, who is now a Labour peer, said: “Not to have the statistics of what’s actually happening, it would be very silly. Otherwise how could you take any action if it’s necessary?
“I’m very surprised there’s no kind of record of [suicide from] mental illness that stems from their time in the military. I think it would make absolute sense to do that.”
Northern Ireland MP Jeffrey Donaldson, a veteran and former member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, told JP Investigations that his own contacts with veteran groups led him to believe that the number of suicides among ex-services personnel is increasing and called for an “urgent review” by the MoD of record keeping practices.
He said: “Whilst there will be varying circumstances in each of these suicides, the current trend is very worrying and the deaths of these brave people is an indictment of a system that is failing to provide many veterans with adequate support and treatment.
The Government need to undertake an urgent review of their record keeping to ensure that the MOD are continuously monitoring the levels of suicide amongst veterans. Having access to such statistics won’t resolve the issues linked to suicide amongst veterans but it will help identify the scale of it and thus assist with targeting resources where they are most needed.”
A veteran turned psychologist, who has set up a pioneering service to treat ex-military personnel which has the backing of senior generals, told JP Investigations that the failure to collect data from inquests or NHS mental health trusts made it appear that the Government was deliberately ignoring the extent of the problem.
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: “When you leave the forces in the UK the Ministry of Defence essentially washes its hands of you - you become the responsibility of the civilian sector.
“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. It is not a difficult thing to do - it's a tick box.
“Not recording these figures makes it very easy for the MoD to turn a blind eye. How they can they tackle a problem if they don’t know its scale and nature. 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.”
The statistics currently available on suicide rates among veterans rely on so-called “cohort studies” focused specifically on veterans from the Falklands War and the Gulf War, and information held by mental health trusts treating veterans.
Two coroners told JP Investigations they believed a systematic approach would be beneficial.
Dewi Prichard Jones, Coroner for North West Wales, said his own experience indicated that young maladjusted male veterans with short service records were at highest risk of suicide - a finding confirmed by other studies.
But he said a more comprehensive system was needed: “It would probably help to tackle this as is done in the US and Australia but it will be a matter of resources and priorities. Suicide is a favoured topic of public discussion at present. If they could track veterans and do something on suicide that would be very helpful.”
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.
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.”