Suicides among servicemen. I’m sorry to follow last week’s To The Point post on the subject of suicide with another, but I decided to do so after reading Johnny Mercer’s powerful maiden speech. The above graph shows how many members of the Armed Forces have committed suicide over the past thirty years. I wanted to compare this to the numbers killed from enemy action, but, so far as can tell, that data only stretches back to 2001. Hence why the graph uses the wider metric of “operational deaths” before then, which is all those servicemen who have died whilst on operations, including deaths from illnesses and the like. As you’ll also see a couple of bullet-points down, there are some surprising gaps in the figures made available by the Ministry of Defence.
Trends, good and bad. The graph depicts dozens of tragedies, yet also a happy trend: the number of suicides (and open verdicts) has declined from a peak of 50 in 1900 to 6 last year. Even if you set this aside the fact that the number of personnel has roughly halved over this period, it is still 44 fewer deaths than before. But there are also some sadder comparisons to be made. Now that Britain’s military engagement with Afghanistan has come to an end, more servicemen killed themselves last year than died in combat. Even when the Afghan toll was at its height, in 2009, there was still one suicide announced for every seven deaths from hostile action.
What about veterans? The above graph has another limitation: it shows suicides among active servicemen, but not among those who have left the Forces. These are the veterans that Mercer was talking about in his speech – but the Ministry of Defence doesn’t actually record their deaths in total. The only figures that are available are for veterans of both the Falklands War and the first Gulf War. There have been 101 suicides among the former. 221 among the latter.
The burdens of youth. So what about veterans outside of those two conflicts? The most comprehensive study was done by the University of Manchester’s Centre for Suicide Prevention in 2009. It compared military discharge data (from between 1996 and 2005) with the details of people who had committed suicide. And its findings? That the overall suicide risk for veterans was no greater than for the rest of the population, but there were some troubling disparities between age groups. Apparently, ex-servicemen aged under 24 were three times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian peers.
A great stain. That Manchester University study was commissioned by the MoD’s Veterans Policy Unit six years ago. But – again, so far as I can tell – similar data hasn’t been produced since then, not even for those who served in Afghanistan. This is disheartening. Numbers aren’t the be-all and end-all of political debate, particularly when we’re talking about so many personal tragedies. But the absence of numbers can suggest that politics doesn’t care enough in the first place. This would be, as Mercer put it last week, “a great stain on our nation”.