Photo by JohnGomezPix

Under the gun

Government to tally veteran suicides for the first time

Artillery Row

The numbers of ex-service personnel who take their own lives will be officially recorded by the government for the first time, following an announcement on 21 September.

The decision comes amid heavy criticism of the government continually letting veterans down. In particular, veterans’ suicide rates have long remained a great unknown, set against clear evidence there is a serious problem. In June, it was reported the eleventh member from the same infantry regiment that deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had taken his own life. Most of the eleven had been diagnosed with PTSD or severe mental health issues after leaving the military.

“We have been calling on the government for several years now to record the suicides of veterans so that essential veterans’ mental health services such as Combat Stress have a better understanding of the scale of the issue,” says Jeff Harrison, Interim Chief Executive at Combat Stress, the UK’s leading charity for veterans’ mental health.

“Given the increased rates of suicide in veterans reported from nations involved in similar conflicts to us over the last 20 years namely, the US, Canada and Australia we welcome the release of data exploring the extent of suicide within UK veterans.”

Since 2017, it’s estimated about 250 British service personnel and veterans have taken their own lives, though no one is sure because hitherto the Ministry of Defence hasn’t tracked veterans’ suicides. In contrast, the US Department of Veterans Affairs is all over the issue. Between 2005 and 2018, a staggering 89,100 veterans took their own lives, according to the VA, which estimates that seventeen US veterans commit suicide each day.

The Australian government recently bowed to pressure to launch a royal commission into the rising tide of veteran suicides there.

The British government’s “concern” usually amounts to lip service

“Is it a rising tide here? We just don’t know,” says Oliver Church, who after leaving the British Army, during which he suffered a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan, co-founded The Eleos Partnership, which promotes new approaches for cultivating mental fitness and improving resilience in individuals and organisations. “There is a lot more about veterans’ suicides on social media nowadays but is that more a reflection of social media being more prevalent?”

Either way, Church explains, if that increased awareness can be “coupled with a data source” about veterans’ suicides, that will help facilitate tackling the problem effectively.

The first annual statistics for suicides among British veterans are expected to be published in 2023, following an agreement between the Office for Veterans’ Affairs (OVA), the MOD and the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

“Translating this information into better prevention is the next step and we welcome working with the Office for Veterans Affairs to do this,” Harrison says.

Having written about these issues since I left the army in 2010, it has been increasingly hard not to conclude that the British government and, I’m afraid, sections of the British population, are not unduly concerned about the country’s military veterans. What “concern” gets voiced usually amounts to lip service about the acute suffering many veterans are undergoing, isolated and hopeless, following the UK’s cataclysmic military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“That veterans who served in the bloodiest conflict this country has seen for 50 years are still taking their lives in 2021 because they cannot find help is a shocking stain on our nation,” ex-veterans minister Johnny Mercer said following the news of that eleventh suicide.

Mercer also highlighted how the UK is the only Five Eyes nation the intelligence alliance comprising the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand without a Cabinet veterans’ minister; that person “crucial in pulling together all arms of government and making them work for veterans”.

In April, following Mercer’s departure, Leo Docherty took up the role of Minister for Defence People and Veterans. Docherty and I attended Sandhurst together and crossed paths after we deployed to Iraq in 2006. He was always a bit of a maverick and not shy of looking in the direction of left field just what is needed to shake up the government’s stilted approach toward veterans.

In his 2008 book Desert of Death: A Soldier’s Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan, Docherty was well ahead of most people in calling out the ineptitude and hubris of the political-military establishment. Like Mercer, Docherty understands the military and his heart will be in it. And more heart is sorely needed from this government on this.

The complicated topic of suicide, as well as the challenges around collating information which may go unreported or attributed to accident is clearly not limited to veterans. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have raised concerns about mental health issues among those directly involved, such as NHS workers and social care providers, but also for the general population enduring additional hardships.

The choice to kill yourself is a uniquely human attribute

Recently, though, there has been a flurry of articles adopting an almost good-news-story angle about the counter-intuitive relatively low number of suicides last year. A recent Daily Telegraph article reported that the suicide rate decreased during the first lockdown, driven by “significantly lower rates” among men. Reading such articles, you usually reach a paragraph tucked near the end clarifying how the data relates to a limited time period and that, spoiler alert, the potential suicidal ramifications of an event can take a lot longer to manifest as many veterans have tragically demonstrated (often killing themselves about a decade after tours).

Whether other animals engage in suicide is a controversial debate. It is generally agreed that while some animals willingly engage in risky behaviour, the choice to kill yourself is a uniquely human attribute. Humans are both blessed and cursed by the gift of language that on the one hand has enabled us to communicate, band together and build great civilisations. Less fortunately, we can ruminate to potentially disastrous degrees, becoming swamped by thoughts to the point of imbuing them with dangerous and deadly powers, including imagining and enabling our own destruction.

“Feelings of sadness or a thought of ‘I’m bad’ cannot by themselves hurt us unless we let them,” say Victoria Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello in Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems. “The reason we may lose sight of the fact that a thought is just a thought is because of language. Language, albeit extremely helpful, has a dark side that allows our minds to construct scary futures, compare ourselves to unmet ideals and create realities that only exist in our mind’s eye.”

That sort of complexity underpins the challenge for many adjusting to the civilian world after leaving the military, Church says, noting that the focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can get in the way.

“As serious as PTSD is, the numbers suffering from it appear relatively low compared to the overall number of veterans struggling,” Church says. “So is it more to do with adjustment disorder, depression after leaving the army, with the loss of identity and sense of purpose that often happens? If we persist in promoting the problem as just being about PTSD, then we are never going to solve it.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover