PTSD and soldier suicide are serious, but let's be sure on the statistics

Panorama's claim that “more soldiers and veterans took their own lives in 2012 than were killed by the Taliban” suggests a worrying problem

Share

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

There is an apparently more intuitively obvious comparison, albeit one that Panorama did not make, which is taking all those who served in Afghanistan and then comparing those killed in action with those who took their own lives. Does that help our understanding any better?  Well, it makes a little more sense but the fact remains that comparing bald statistics without factoring in suicide rates – both within the chosen cohorts and set against rates in the wider population – can lead to misleading conclusions. And in any case, while we know that in 2012 40 UK Service personnel died in hostile action in Afghanistan; and while we know that in the same year there were seven coroner confirmed suicides (or open verdict deaths), and five among those previously had been deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan; what we don’t know is the number who served in Afghanistan and who committed suicide in 2012 having already left the Forces.  That data will not be available until late 2014.

Panorama are right to draw attention to the rise in those diagnosed with 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 have 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.

  • This article has been updated since its original publication to make clear that the comparison made by Panorama was between the number of UK military personnel killed in 2012 by the Taliban and the overall number of deaths by suicide of UK Services personnel or Services veterans in the same period.  It originally suggested that Panorama’s comparison was between deaths at the hands of the Taliban and suicides specifically among those serving in, or veterans of, the Afghan conflict.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
 

I’ll support England’s women, but it’s not like men’s football – and that’s a good thing

Matthew Norman
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue