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

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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police