'Urgent Government review' needed into way military veteran deaths are recorded

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An urgent Government review is required into the way the deaths of military veterans is recorded, say campaigners, politicians, coroners and family members following a three-month investigation by this newspaper.

Requests to 98 coroners across England and Wales - and their equivalents in Scotland - for data showing how many former military personnel have taken their own lives in the last three years elicited just one response, from Northampton coroner Anne Pember. Twenty-five coroners responded to say that no such data is recorded by them.

Mental health and the military - a cartoon by YP cartoonist Graeme Bandeira

Mental health and the military - a cartoon by YP cartoonist Graeme Bandeira

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This investigation - commissioned to ascertain if suicides among veterans is on the rise as campaigners fear - identified 16 individuals who have taken their own lives since January: seven are known to have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; two were special forces and five were former Royal Marines. None of their deaths are recorded as military suicides.

Commenting on the findings of this investigation, MP Jeffrey Donaldson, a veteran and former member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, said his time spent with veteran groups leads him to believe that the number of suicides among ex-services personnel is increasing and called for an “urgent review” by the MoD who he accused of letting down veterans.

“The Government needs to undertake an urgent review of its record keeping to ensure the MoD is continuously monitoring the levels of suicide amongst veterans,” Mr Donaldson said.

Asked if suicides among veterans were on the rise, a spokesman for the MoD acknowledged it does not know, as it fails to record as much.

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Meanwhile, former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Lord West, has called for the Ministry of Defence to see sense when it comes to capturing data relating to veteran suicides, branding not doing so as “silly”’

When approached with the findings of an investigation by this newspaper, distinguished Labour peer Lord West expressed shock and surprise: “Not to have the statistics of what’s actually happening is very silly,” he said.

“Without those statistics, how can you take any action, if 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.”

Two coroners - Dewi Prichard Jones, Coroner for North West Wales, and Anne Pember, Coroner for Northamptonshire, were supportive of the notion of a review into how veterans’ deaths can be recorded.

Coroner Jones said he believed young maladjusted male veterans with short service records were at highest risk of suicide, a finding, he said, that is confirmed by other studies.

He added: “It would probably help to tackle this as is done in the United States 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.”

Coroner Pember has presided over the county’s inquests for 23 years and recalls a number of cases where post traumatic stress was a factor in a person’s death: “It features especially in mental health cases,” she said.

“Sometimes we get cases where people have suffered from flashbacks from their PTSD, which can lead to all kinds of complications.”

She added that she would be willing to consider writing a report on veteran suicides if, in the future, a link between a person’s death and their military service was established in a significant number of cases.

However, campaign groups want the Government and coroners to go further than that.

Simon Maryan, a former Royal Marine who now jointly heads-up Veterans United Against Suicide UK, said he has definitely seen a rise in suicides and suicide attempts since the beginning of 2017 and accused the Government of “turning a blind eye” to the crisis.

He said it was “unforgivable” that there was no real way of recording veteran suicides.

“When you leave the forces in the UK, the MoD essentially washes its hands of you. You become the responsibility of the civilian sector,” he said.

“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 for coroners to ask if someone who has committed suicide had been in the forces. It is not a difficult thing to do.”

Meanwhile, a leading clinician working for Combat Stress, a charity set up to support veterans experiencing mental health challenges, joined the call for a change in the way former armed forces employees have their deaths recorded.

Dr Dominic Murphy said: “We don’t actually know those rates [of veteran suicides]. From the mid-noughties onwards there has been a higher rate of suicide among American, Canadian and Australian veterans, and some of our European allies, yet we just don’t know in the UK. Any increase is very worrying. For me, this is a red light and we need to fill this gap with data.”

When approached, a spokesman for the MoD did not accept that suicide rates among veterans was any worse than the general population.

Said the spokesman: “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.”