Fears ex-military suicides spiralling while Government stalls – now is time for action

Our military suicides investigation launched last year. Picture by Shutterstock
Our military suicides investigation launched last year. Picture by Shutterstock

Scores of military veterans are feared to have taken their own lives since this newspaper joined others nationwide in calling for action last year.

A national charity believes 80 current or former service personnel may have died by suicide in 2018 – and five veterans and four serving members are feared to have taken their own lives already this year.

David Edwards, a West Sussex county and Arun district councillor, has spoken out about his experiences with PTSD

David Edwards, a West Sussex county and Arun district councillor, has spoken out about his experiences with PTSD

When we shone a light on the issue seven months ago, campaigners urged the Government to introduce a system to comprehensively record veteran suicides.

But we can now reveal a wrangle between government departments is stalling what many believe to be a vital system to help officials get a handle on what is feared to be a spiralling problem.

‘Not feasible’

Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said in November it was his ambition to ‘understand from every coroner whether an individual death is a veteran or not’.

Backing our call for action: Louise Goldsmith

Backing our call for action: Louise Goldsmith

However the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has now claimed it is not feasible for coroners to record veteran suicides.

The stance comes after the Defence Select Committee, expected to call for further progress in a report on Monday, urged the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to work with justice departments across the UK to work out from existing suicide records whether someone had been a veteran.

Sussex figures react

The MoJ’s stance has been criticised by West Sussex County Council leader Louise Goldsmith, the mother of a serviceman who previously backed our campaign.

She said: “We are aware of the increased suicide rates and that is deeply, deeply worrying. As I said before one veteran suicide is one too many.

“I am really disappointed by the Ministry of Justice’s stance. We need such deaths recorded so we can further understand the problem better. I applaud (this newspaper’s) campaign which I fully support.”

Mrs Goldsmith’s support was backed by the likes of Sussex councillor David Edwards, who battled suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after leaving the Army, stricken by guilt when his friend was killed in the Falklands War. Read more about his story here.

Today, councillor Bill Bentley, East Sussex County Council’s armed forces champion, joined our renewed call for more to be done.

He said: “I welcome any measure which will allow us to better identify the scale of this problem so that we can target resources accordingly.

“Any suicide is a tragedy for the person concerned and their family, but the particular pressures military personnel are placed under and the often traumatic events they may witness while on active duty mean they are particularly vulnerable.”

A growing issue – time to legislate?

Dr Walter Busuttil, medical director of national veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said it was now up to MPs to step in and make it a statutory responsibility on coroners to record veteran suicides.

“If they want to record things properly then they are going to have to change the law,” he said.

He said it sounded a viable idea for coroners’ IT systems to be linked to MoD pension records, to verify if someone was a veteran.

“There are precedents, it can be done,” he said.

Jeff Williams, an ex-Royal Marine Sargeant Major, whose group Veterans United Against Suicide estimated 80 former and current personnel had died by suicide in 2018, said the MoJ ruling out support from coroners was ‘devastating’.

“I am not surprised but I am pretty devastated because a lot of people in the veterans community have hung their hats on this happening,” he said.

“We were under the impression that this was in the late stages of being implemented and it wasn’t going to be a problem.”

His group has recorded the suspected suicides of five veterans and four serving members of the forces so far in 2019.

‘Too complex’

The MoJ said it was too complex for coroners to record veteran suicides, in particular because of the potential difficulties of accurately establishing a victim’s occupational history.

Read more: Sussex coroners quiet on military suicide figures amid calls for better recording of veteran deaths

“For this reason, there are no plans to require coroners to record this kind of information in the context of suicide conclusions,” a spokesperson said.

The MoD is considering how to respond to the setback.

An MoD spokeswoman replied: “We take the wellbeing of all those who have served extremely seriously and we are currently considering how we can better understand the cohort of veterans who take their own lives.”

Last week Mr Ellwood, a former Royal Green Jackets Captain, offered a public apology to the grieving families of veterans and serving personnel who took their lives this year and last, vowing to fight on in addressing the issue.

Since the investigation highlighted the issue, the Government has begun a study into suicide rates among veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NHS trusts in England have provided some indication of the scale of the mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), facing those who leave active duty.

Some 21,190 veterans were referred for psychological therapies in 2017/18, up 2,000 in 12 months.

Seeking support

If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article, help and advice is available from these organisations:

Veterans Gateway: 0808 802 1212 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Veterans UK: 0808 1914218 (8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/military-healthcare/nhs-mental-health-services-for-veterans/

Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Help for Heroes: 01980 844280 (weekdays, between 9am and 5pm

Royal British Legion: 0808 802 8080 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week)