There’s a lot of noise in the military community at the minute about the need to reform the mental health services available to serving troops and veterans. It’s not a bad thing, we pride ourselves in being as noisy as possible about the same issues. Serving troops and veterans are losing to suicide all too frequently, we know that because we see it. It’s on our news, it fills our Facebook timelines, it’s everywhere, because it’s happening everywhere.
This paints a picture of an Armed Forces unable to cope with the scope of mental health issues among its ranks. And yet, the party line remains:
“For the 20-year period 1998-2017, the male suicide rate for the UK regular Armed Forces was statistically significantly lower than the UK general population. Historically, the only age group with a statistically significant increased risk of suicide compared to the UK general population were Army males aged under 20 years of age. However, the number of suicides in this age group has fallen and for the latest twenty-year period, the rate of suicide in young Army males was the same as the rate in males of the same age in the UK general population.” – Suicide and Open Verdict Deaths in the UK Regular Armed Forces: Summary 2017
So looking at this at face value we have two opposing viewpoints coming through. Our own experiential evidence is that suicide amongst veterans and serving troops is higher (it must be, right?), and the Ministry of Defence are claiming that suicide is lower than the general population.
It can be easy to look at this and assume that The MOD are lying, or simply covering up the scale of mental health issues in the forces. This doesn’t ring true with the government’s overall approach to mental health in its civil servants though. In general, our government, under all parties has been fairly forward thinking in managing depression, anxiety and stress. Perhaps a simpler explanation is the MOD truly believes there isn’t a problem, because they’re basing their research on faulty data.
The exception to the rule
Australia, America & Canada all report a significantly higher suicide rate among their troops and veterans, so why are we the exception to the rule? How can it be that our suicide rate remains lower than average, when everyone else’s armed services are reporting higher figures. I left the Army in 2009 and I’ve been a software engineer for 5 years, when we see an anomaly in data like this, we don’t simply accept it as true, we ask how we managed to fuck up the data.
Here’s how we fucked up the data: The UK does not require it’s coroners to record whether or not a person was a veteran. America, Canada and Australia do. Everyone else has a database and in some cases a whole government department whose job it is, to collect this data.
It is believed that if this practice was changed, the UK’s suicide rate among troops and veterans would reflect that of our allies much more closely than it does now. But let’s say we start doing that today. It could still be a decade before we have accurate and actionable data, so what do we do until then?
Admit it, we fucked up.
We have to, as a matter of urgency, stop using the current data to formulate plans on mental health in the services. The MOD does a disservice to those losing to suicide if they don’t hold their hands up and say “we fucked up, but we’re fixing it”.
Until we can amass enough information through the correct recordings of veteran and troop deaths, we should use the data collected by our allies as a truer reflection of the suicide rate in our own ranks. I’m sure over the coming months and years there will be a lot of debate about how that changes the current approach, that’s for a different article.
Why is it important to get the figures right?
You could ask, ‘if the MOD are doing the right things regarding mental health already, why is it important to get the exact figures on deaths by suicide among serving troops and veterans?’
The real issue is that the current narrative is damaging. By saying suicide in the forces is lower instead of higher, the MOD remove the pressure to supply specialist mental health care for service personnel. Although there are specialist services in place such as the Combat Stress hotline, these services don’t go far enough. If they did, we wouldn’t be burying people every week and All Call Signs wouldn’t need to exist. But we do because there IS a problem and it needs to be addressed.
Rest assured we’ll be communicating with the military community and doing our best to get your thoughts on this infront of the right people. That’s happening already via media coverage, later this month we start meeting MPs and from there we keep moving forward until something is done.