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

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?