Many Service leavers face an increased risk of committing suicide. What are the risk factors, and what can be done?
WORDS: PAUL F COCKBURN
Back in 2005, Falklands veteran and former SAS-member Charles “Nish” Bruce jumped from a plane at 5,000 feet over Oxfordshire – without a parachute. A horrifying punchline was subsequently delivered during the official inquest into his death when Falkland veterans support group the South Atlantic Medal Association revealed that, during the quarter century following the end of hostilities, the number of Falkland veterans who had since committed suicide was greater than the death toll during the Conflict itself.
Mental illness caused by their experiences on duty has been linked with veterans’ alcohol abuse and the large number of veterans entering the wrong end of Britain’s justice system. Last year, research by the University of Manchester’s Centre for Suicide Prevention also suggested another problem – that young men (and to a lesser degree young women) leaving the British Armed Forces are up to three times more likely to take their own lives than their civilian peers. In January, a policy briefing by UK charity the Mental Health Foundation confirmed this, stating that younger veterans were between two and three times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian contemporaries.
REASONS NOT TO BE CHEERFUL
Admittedly, when it comes to the greater picture, the Manchester survey found that veterans as a whole were at no greater risk of suicide than the rest of the population, but this is thanks chiefly to veterans in the 30-49 age-group actually having a lower rate of suicide than their civilian peers. Professor Nav Kapur, who led the Manchester research, admitted he is unable to prove why younger veterans have higher rates of suicide than men of the same age in the general population.
He did, however, suggest three possibilities: “One explanation is that those entering military service at a young age are already vulnerable to suicide,” he said, “which would explain why those serving for a relatively short period of time before being discharged were most likely to take their own lives.
“A second explanation is the difficulty a minority of individuals experience making the transition to civilian life,” Professor Kapur added. “However, a third possibility is that exposure to adverse experiences during military service or active deployment played a role in the two to three-fold increase in suicide among young veterans.”
YOUNG AT RISK
However, research shows that it’s not just post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); many of those most at risk don’t even complete basic training and so have little chance of actual deployment in a war zone.
Simon Lawton-Smith, MHF’s Head of Policy, said: “While most members of the Forces rejoin civilian life successfully, a significant number will struggle. There have been recent initiatives to improve the help offered to these veterans, but these are not widely available and we feel it’s particularly urgent that the support available to young veterans, those with alcohol misuse problems and those at risk of offending are improved.
“We can’t carry on with a situation where young veterans are twice as likely to take their own life than their contemporaries and prisons are full of veterans suffering from depression and PTSD.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Statistically, the actual numbers are low; of the 233,803 individuals who left the Armed Forces during the Manchester survey period, ‘only’ 224 took their own lives. Yet that is, of course, 224 lost lives; 224 families robbed of a father, brother or son and often left with the guilt of not having been able to help or prevent the death.
Although the MHF has welcomed recent initiatives to expand the mental health support available to veterans, the charity believes there’s a need for a fundamental change of emphasis. “Resettlement packages for veterans returning to civilian life should be based on need, not just length of service,” said the charity’s spokesperson. “Veterans under the age of 24 are at two to three times the risk of suicide than civilians of the same age. Despite this, the full resettlement package for former forces personnel is only available after six years service. The Mental Health of Veterans calls for the Ministry of Defence to consider how support for younger veterans could be enhanced, so that vulnerable young people leaving the forces are properly protected.”
Author Andy McNabb – formerly of the SAS – last year talked of a need for a dedicated stream within the NHS capable of providing the appropriate level of care for veterans affected by PTS maybe a decade after discharge. Professor Kapur admitted that part of the problem could well down to most-at-risk veterans having few contacts with mental health professionals – just 14% of those under 20 had any contact in the year before their deaths, rising to only 20% for under 24s.
NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS
Men of all ages can find it difficult to admit that something is wrong, particularly when it comes to mental health which still comes with a lot of cultural baggage long since left behind when it comes to physical illness and injury.
Yet, as is often the case, recognition of a problem is a vital first step in dealing with it, and the MHF research confirmed a need for not relying just on veterans contacting medical support on their own.
“Whatever the explanation for our findings, these individuals may benefit from some form of intervention,” said Professor Kapur. “Initial pre-recruitment interview, medical examination and training are important in ensuring military health but it should be recognised that those discharged at any of these stages may be at higher risk of suicide.”
08457 90 90 90, www.samaritans.org