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Panorama: Soldier Suicide figures

A Panorama programme claiming that 'more soldiers and veterans took their own lives in 2012 than were killed by the Taliban' suggests a worrying problem, but just how helpful were the figures?, ask experts from the King's Centre for Military Health Research.

Tonight’s Panorama addresses a vital issue – the mental health and wellbeing of UK Service personnel returning from Afghanistan, focusing on the tragedy of suicide among them. As it makes clear, such events are deeply distressing, leaving families grieving, perplexed and often angry. Statistics cannot do justice, but nevertheless, the claim that 'more soldiers and veterans took their own lives in 2012 than were killed by the Taliban' suggests a worrying problem. But only last month a similar claim about suicide among Falklands veterans – that 'more have taken their own lives than were killed in the war', was shown to be false (95 suicides compared to the 237 who died). So is this claim accurate?

Panorama is making a large claim – comparing those killed in Afghanistan with all veteran suicides. The problem is that about 400,000 people have served in the Forces since 2003, and overall there are 3.8 million veterans in England alone. So simply multiplying those numbers by the population suicide rates suggests that Panorama will be right, but is this a sensible comparison? A similar comparison could be taken from the 1991 Gulf War – 47 were killed in combat and by the end of 2012, 197 veterans had committed suicide. But overall there is no difference in the suicide rates of those who served in the war and those who did not. Absolute numbers can mislead. And if, God forbid, the numbers killed in action had been higher than it was, so much so that it exceeded the total number of veteran suicides, would that mean there was no problem? Of course not. The comparison is eye catching, but unhelpful.

But what if the comparison was Afghanistan alone? Using statistics published by Defence Statistics (Health), in 2012, 40 UK Service personnel died in hostile action in Afghanistan. In the same year there were seven coroner confirmed suicides (or open verdict deaths), and five among those previously been deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. But these only refer to those who died in service, not those who may have committed suicide post-discharge. So if we compare just those who have served in Afghanistan, then the implication is that 33 people who served in Afghanistan and now have left service committed suicide in 2012. How likely is this? The problem is that no one knows. That data will not be available until late 2014.

Panorama is right to draw attention to the rise in those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) between 2009 and 2012. But this too needs to be interpreted carefully. The data we have collected between 2003 and 2010 shows that the true rate of PTSD has remained fairly constant at four per cent, albeit higher in those exposed to combat and those in the Reserves. But many present now earlier than before – the claim that it takes on average 12 years before veterans seek help is no longer true. Other research from King’s also confirms a modest, but significant decrease in stigma in the last few years. Together these may explain why numbers being seen by mental health services are going up, but overall rates remain stable.

We must continue to be concerned about the social and psychological consequences of military service and deployment, especially as we withdraw from Afghanistan, and Panorama has made a powerful film doing just that. But at the same time it is also right that we do so on the basis of sound evidence and comparisons.

Written with Dr Nicola Fear. Professor Wessely and Dr Fear are co-directors of the King's Centre for Military Health Research, King’s College, London.

Notes to editors

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