Mental Health

Veterans at no greater risk of suicide than general population, new study finds

A new study has found that veterans are at no greater risk of suicide than the general population.

Research by the University of Manchester also found that veterans over the age of 35 were at a lower risk of suicide than the general population, although younger veterans were at increased risk.

The findings come despite wider assumptions in society that veterans are more prone to suicide.

Previous studies, including by the NHS Health Research Authority and other health research bodies have suggested that UK Armed Forces veterans are potentially a highly vulnerable group due to prior adverse life events, the difficulties associated with the transition to civilian life and high rates of homelessness and alcohol and substance misuse.

This study – which linked data between NHS and military records – looked at information on 458,000 veterans between 1996 and 2018.

During this period, 1,086 (0.2%) veterans took their own lives, which is similar to the overall rate in the general population.

However, the study found suicide rates were two to four times higher for veterans under the age of 25, when compared with the general population of the same age group.

Suicide rates were lower than the general population for veterans over 35 years old. 

The research also found that being male, being discharged from the forces before the age of 34 years, being untrained, and having served for less than 10 years were risk factors for suicide.

A quarter of veterans who had died by suicide had been in contact with specialist mental health services in the 12 months prior to their death, according to the study.

Levels of unemployment, alcohol and drug misuse, and self-harm samples were also found to be similar to patients who had not served in the Armed Forces.

Cathryn Rodway, Lead Study Author and Programme Manager at the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety (NCISH) said: "In this study, we linked national databases of those who had left the Armed Forces and those who had died by suicide and compared the risk of suicide in nearly half a million veterans with the general population. 

Anonymous personnel at sunrise on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Lead study author Cathryn Rodway says "the study found suicide rates were two to four times higher for veterans under the age of 25, when compared with the general population of the same age group".

"While public perception and some previous studies suggest combat-related experiences are associated with suicide, our findings paint a slightly different picture.

"We found suicide was no more common than it is in the general population although risk did appear to be higher in the youngest age groups and those with short lengths of service. 

"Deployment to a conflict actually appeared to reduce suicide risk."

Professor Nav Kapur, Professor of Psychiatry and Population Health at The University of Manchester and senior author of the study said: "Young veterans with short lengths of service had higher rates of suicide than young people in the wider population and this might be the group with the most pressing needs.

"These findings are consistent with a much smaller study we carried out over a decade ago.  

"While some factors are specific to veterans, other aspects of the prevention challenge are similar to the general population. 

"We need to ensure we tackle mental health problems and alcohol misuse, have high quality services for self-harm, and address the other health and social factors which may contribute to suicide in both veterans and non-veterans."

Anonymous Soldiers from 1 Aviation Brigade taking part in a Remembrance parade at the end of their desert training exercise in Oman (Picture: MOD).
The findings in this latest study come despite wider assumptions in society that veterans are more prone to suicide (Picture: MOD).

The findings come as Veterans' Affairs Minister Johnny Mercer calls for greater awareness of the support available, particularly as we head towards the Christmas period, when some may struggle with their mental health.

He said: "This is an important study which will help us ensure we have targeted veterans care and support.

"While it's important to note that suicide rates amongst veterans are similar to the general population, any death is a tragedy and we must help those who need support.

"I would strongly urge anyone who is struggling to reach out and help is available, including through Op COURAGE in England, dedicated NHS services in Scotland and Wales, and the Veterans' Support Office in Northern Ireland."

Responding to the report, Shadow Veterans Minister Rachel Hopkins MP said: "While the overall suicide risk for veterans is similar to the general population, it's deeply concerning that younger veterans are up to four times more likely to die by suicide than their civilian counterparts.

"Efforts to understand the mental health challenges facing our veterans are welcome, but Ministers must urgently outline how it will target additional support to younger veterans who are at risk.

"Labour has pledged to boost funding for veterans' mental health support by £35m as part of our commitment to support those who have protected us."

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