The “British stiff upper lip” attitude to death and the UK system of recording deaths means there is not enough accurate information about suicides in this country.
That’s the view of Dr Walter Busuttil, consultant psychiatrist and medical director at Combat Stress, the UK’s leading charity for veterans’ mental health.
He explains: “In the UK, coroners are reluctant to call something a suicide unless it is obvious. They will often go with a narrative verdict.
“What this means is that we haven’t got any accurate information relating to the rate of suicides among anybody in this country.
“Other countries record more accurate suicide studies. It is cultural and indicative of the ‘British stiff upper lip’.
“We have a country that does not record suicides properly and if a veteran dies unnecessarily, we have failed that person.”
Surprise at lack of suicide records
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.”
Urgent review needed
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.
‘MOD washes its hands of you’
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.”