Soldiers face 'ticking stress time bomb'

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Britain faces a "ticking time bomb" of mental illness and suicide as troops return from fierce combat in Afghanistan, the Tories have warned.

A lack of mental health support and the intensity of the battle against the Taliban will leave record numbers suffering from post-traumatic stress, according to the party.

David Cameron and Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox are highlighting the dangers at a summit after one of the bloodiest periods for UK forces for decades.

The bodies of eight soldiers killed in Afghanistan - three of them teenagers - were repatriated on Tuesday.

Research suggests that veterans aged 18 to 23 are up to three times more likely to commit suicide than civilians.

More veterans of the UK's Falklands campaign and first Gulf War are believed to have killed themselves after quitting the forces than died in action. Some 255 were killed during the Falklands conflict, but an estimated 264 of troops who survived have since committed suicide.

The Gulf War claimed the lives of 24 British soldiers, but a Government study last year suggested that 169 veterans had died of "intentional self harm" or in circumstances that led to open verdicts at inquests.

Dr Fox told the Independent: "The suicide figures for past conflicts are deeply concerning. I worry that with the intensity of the current operations in Afghanistan we are building up a timebomb of mental health problems."

Mr Cameron and Dr Fox will set out plans for improving mental welfare support for troops at a "combat stress" summit at parliament. Veterans' groups, and mental health and military experts will also attend, including former SAS soldier Andy McNab.

Meanwhile, the head of the British Army said that more troops are needed in the Afghan province of Helmand to provide the security for its people to go back to their ordinary lives. General Sir Richard Dannatt said that "more boots on the ground" were key to success in Helmand, though he stressed that it did not matter whether they belonged to British, American or Afghan troops