The United Kingdom needs accurate data on the number of veteran suicide deaths
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has created an action plan to understand suicide among ex-service personnel following an investigation by a number of publications in the UK. There is currently a lack of data around this issue and the MoD has been criticised by campaigners for failing to keep track of the scale of the problem. Research by JPI found that there was no system to monitor the number of suicides among UK veterans. Unlike the USA, Canada and Australia the UK government does not keep figures on the number of Veterans that die by suicide. The current statistics only consider service personnel and not veterans.
In October 2018, the MoD launched a new study into the causes of death of military personnel between 2001 and 2014 who deployed on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The research has been conducted with NHS digital and matches the MoD’s service database with corresponding NHS records to track the causes of death of service personnel. Following the calls for the MoD to collect data on veteran suicide the study will now be expanded to include recent service leavers. The study will be updated on an ongoing basis which hopes to provide almost real-time monitoring of suicide. In addition there will also be a further study into the risk factors in the year leading up to the suicide of ex-personnel.
Currently, coroners in the UK do not have to record the suicide of veterans, this means it is very difficult to conclusively show whether the rates of suicide for veterans is higher than the average population. In response to this the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has said that it is not possible to record data on veteran suicide due to a number of practical and administrative reasons. Indeed when the Johnston Press Investigation wrote to 98 coroners in the UK asking for the records of over three years on the number of suicides by those who have served in the military for the last three years, only one coroner was able to provide the data. The MoJ has said that the Chief Coroner will give clearer guidance so that suicides are recorded more consistently.
By contrast the United States has been a pioneer in developing data on military suicides. The United States Department of Defence releases an annual report on the occurrence of military suicide each year, which provides an overview of the rates and risk factors associated with military suicide, as well as changes over time and comparisons to the general adult population in the U.S. This was a result of the doubling of the rate of suicide in the military between 2005 and 2009, during a period of active military conflict which in previous wartime eras had been associated in a decrease in suicides. The Department of Defence was unable to explain the pattern of military suicides and established the Department of Defence Suicide Event Report which tracks a variety of suicide-related risk factors and other contextual factors for suicide events that occur among U.S. service personnel.
The number of serving UK armed forces personnel killed while on military operations has reached its lowest level of the modern era; however we are not able to accurately know the numbers of veterans that have tragically taken their own lives. It is imperative that the United Kingdom needs to develop accurate data on the number of veteran suicides in order to full understand the scope of the problem and to develop strategies to decrease veteran suicide.