Dr Dominic Murphy, a senior clinical lecturer at Combat Stress, says that the lack of data on the issue is a “red light” for those concerned about veterans’ welfare.
His research of the charity’s mushrooming client base has reflected what is already known - that young men from unstable backgrounds who leave the services after a short period are most at risk from suicide.
What he does not know is whether the rapid increase in demand for the charity’s mental health services might also suggest a rise in suicides among the UK’s veterans.
'WE DON’T KNOW THOSE RATES'
“We don’t actually know those rates. From the mid-noughties onwards there has been a higher rate of suicide among American and Canadian and Australian veterans and some of our European allies and we just don’t know [the situation] in the UK because the last study was in 2009.”
Although suicide is “not very common” the rises among UK allies have been “significant”.
The rises among UK allies have been over a similar time frame.
“One could argue it might coincide with the end of the wars, the active war-fighting phase in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are still low prevalence rates but any increase is very worrying, it is a very negative outcome.”
He adds: “For me it is a red light that we need to actually fill this gap with data.”
His understanding is that UK coroners don’t routinely ask if the deceased was a veteran when they do kill themselves.
The Johnston Press Investigations Team wrote to coroners across the UK and those who replied confirmed that they had no means to record that someone was a veteran after an inquest.
“The fact that you wrote to all the corners and could not collect any data just shows that we don’t really know what is going on.”
By contrast the health care systems of Canada, American, Australia have a veterans affairs agency which tracks them on a national database and allows access to different health provision, he says.
He has just completed a study of 400 of the 3185 clients currently being treated by Combat Stress, looking at how often they have suicidal thoughts or ‘suicidal ideation’.
The results have been accepted for publication in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corp.
“Our data suggests that 19% of our [client] population currently experience moderate to severe suicidal ideation”.
Some of the risk factors for suicidal thoughts he found among his client base are being a young single male, an early service leaver ( less than four years of continuous service), unemployed and having had more difficult childhood experiences.
Such veterans often grow up without adult role models who can regulate their emotions well.
“It just means people get really stressed and can’t calm down.”
This finding confirms research by other academics.
It is a “red flag” if his clients have made any actual plans or attempted to take their life or self-harmed in the past.
“Protective factors” that mitigate against suicide are whether they have loved ones and whether they have more positive thoughts to balance out the negative ones.
“Often this is friends, family, children, pets - if people don’t have those again that is very concerning. So you can see why people who aren’t in employment or relationships is kind of worrying.”
He adds: “For such people, they cannot see a future where they are not suffering from mental health problems.”
“When you are in the military you have quite a high status, you have a job you are quite respected, you have got peers around you. You then leave the armed forces and you may not be working, you may not have any friends, social support around you. That loss of status can be very difficult for people, as it would be for anyone; loss of meaning and loss of direction.”
Combat Stress has three treatment centres in Great Britain. Veterans in Northern Ireland may receive community-based treatment or attend a centre in Great Britain.