Holyrood and Westminster ‘turning blind eye’ to veteran suicides

Photo by Jayne Wright
Photo by Jayne Wright
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The number of UK veterans who tragically take their own lives is being overlooked by the Scottish and Westminster governments, allowing the Ministry of Defence to “turn a blind eye” to the human cost of conflict, a Johnston Press investigation has found.

Figures for former service personnel taking their own lives – available to the Scottish and Westminster governments – are withheld from scrutiny by the general public.

Campaigners warn the numbers are set to rise with the country facing a “ticking time bomb” of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health issues becoming increasingly affected by memories of their experiences in conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The tragic case of homeless ex-soldier Darren Greenfield, who died a week before Christmas last year while sleeping rough in Edinburgh, sparked outrage among veterans’ charities.

Mr Greenfield, 47, who had served with the Royal Tank Regiment, used to beg near Waverley station, wearing army khakis and holding a piece of cardboard with his army service number and “Soldier in need, Please Help, Thank You God Bless” written on it.

His sister said his time in Bosnia had left him suffering from PTSD and that he struggled to cope with civilian life.

Each year about 18,000 service personnel leave the UK armed forces, with a “significant minority” at risk of falling through the cracks.

Scotland has about 240,000 veterans and whilst the majority manage to integrate back into civilian life without major difficulties, a significant minority do not. Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar is calling for the Scottish and Westminster governments to carry out an immediate review and release annual figures on veterans’ suicide rates.

In Scotland, as elsewhere in the UK, those attempting to access the data on veteran suicides face a labyrinthine task involving multiple agencies and bureaucratic barriers.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said it was unable to provide statistics on veteran suicides in Scotland under a Freedom of Information request because the costs of obtaining data crossed the £600 public authorities threshold.

COPFS said the only way of ascertaining if they held information on veteran deaths from 2015 to last year would be to manually examine thousands of death reports. There were 10,931 deaths in Scotland in 2016/17 alone.

Obtaining accurate figures for veteran suicides still requires a lengthy cross-referencing of NHS data, if permitted to do so.

However, the Scottish Suicide Information Database (ScotSID), which issues reports on the numbers of suicides north of the border, lists the occupation of the deceased, but with no category for “veterans”, making use of information supplied on death certificates.

Categories of employment included range from carpenters and joiners to managers on the releases compiled by the Information Services Division (ISD) of NHS National Services Scotland.

Only those who were actually in the armed forces at the time they took their lives are included, split into non-officer ranks and officer ranks.

An ISD report released last month showed there were 680 probable suicides in Scotland, down from 728 in 2016.

The total number of males who died by suicide was 522, while the number for females was 158.

Mr Anwar, supporting the Johnston Press investigation, is calling for an immediate review of how veterans’ suicides are recorded by the Scottish and Westminster governments, saying questions need to be answered about why the figures are not made public.

“It is imperative the figures on veteran suicides are released, so that pressure is put on the Scottish Government and Westminster governments,” he said. “It’s an absolute disgrace that figures which are available to governments and are kept hidden. It smacks of an official cover-up.

“I suspect the figures are deeply embarrassing, which is why they are hiding them, being obstructive and refusing to release them.

“They know that the finger of blame would rightly be pointed at them for neglecting veterans who end up jobless, homeless and without real medical support. This neglect has been well documented for years and years.

“I also don’t buy the official explanation that the figures are withheld for reasons of confidentiality. The truth is they would make shocking reading.”

Combat Stress – the UK-wide charity working with veterans with PTSD and other mental health conditions – have seen a 143 per cent rise in referrals over the past ten years.

North of the border, figures from January show the charity had 365 registered veterans, with 253 referred to its services for the first time in 2016.

Lee Knifton, head of Mental Health Foundation Scotland, the mental health campaigning charity, said accurate statistics on veterans’ suicides were vital to prevent further tragedies.