This article for the fourth day of #mentalhealthawarenessweek is part of an academic article that I am writing up for publication, stay tuned for the release of that – coming to a “refable” publication near you.
Military suicide is a topic that has received little official attention but increasing public awareness. Each year there are around one million suicides worldwide. Young men, divorcees, and low-skilled workers present up to a 10% higher risk of suicide than the ‘average’ person. Veterans and serving personnel can surpass this scale. Within the USA, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times greater than civilians. In 2008 an estimated 20 veteran suicides per day added to 321 active service suicides. In Britain, 71 British veterans and serving personnel reportedly committed suicide in 2018. Throughout the same year concerns grew within the Scottish media over eight separate Scottish military suicides in a week, leading to the Minister for Mental Health Clare Haughey MSP to state:
‘We are therefore working closely with ISD to explore and improve the collection of data on veterans who have had contact with NHS mental health services.’
However, one of the primary issues with considerations of military suicides is that up until the end of 2018 official statistics were not collected by Westminster or Scottish Government. While the Minister for Mental Health promised to look into these statistics, it is clear from the most recent report that military deaths are combined with other categories, and veterans have no inclusion what so ever. On November the 11th 2018, exactly a century after the end of the First World War, The Times claimed victory as it’s ‘Save Our Soldiers’ campaign had pressured the Westminster government into recording the deaths of veterans. Tobias Ellwood, the Defence Minister, stated that these measures would be crucial for the government to “better understand” the toll of modern conflict on ex-servicemen and women.
It must be stated that this article is not an attack on the Westminster or Scottish Government, or indeed an attack on the British Military. Despite arguments to the contrary within the tabloid press over the last two decades, millions of pounds have been spent by the Ministry of Defence on supporting the mental health of military personnel. Holistic and trauma-informed preventative measures to support the mental wellbeing of soldiers have been researched and implemented. Pre and post-operational stress management briefings, decompression, Trauma Risk Management, and the Big White Wall online wellbeing service, have all been put in place.
Additionally, the MoD has over the last decade introduced several anti-stigma campaigns to encourage serving personnel who need help to come forward to access the full range of support that is available.” The Defence People Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2017-2022, published in 2017, included a focus on suicide, which argued that rates had continued to fall over a 5 year period.
However, since 2003, there have been 274 reported British military suicides with charities and organisations, stating that there is likely to be a lot more, particularly for veterans. The current arguments focused on military suicide are related to visibility and treatment, of which you can rarely have one without the other. Yet, this is not a new problem as the British Military’s relationship with suicide has been an issue for centuries.
During the Crimean War in the 1850s, 18 suicides out of the 21,097 deaths were recorded within the British Army, yet little else was noted, and these figures remain suspect. However, in a move that would remain common for official reporting, these men were recorded as deaths from ‘disease’ not violence within the official reports. This is similar in the average number per 100,000 men (8-16 in the British case) to that of the American Civil War where there was a similar ratio of suicide cases, and again the men were recorded as victims of ‘disease’. Of course, it is worth noting that at this point in history, suicide cases were often regarded as being ‘diseased’, as insanity, or indeed any form of little understood mental illness, was seen as being a ‘disease’.
As the above painting by William Hogarth depicts, those deemed ‘mad’ were often locked up and had the key quietly disposed of. Janet Padiak offers one of the most definitive examinations on British military suicide before the twentieth century within her excellent chapter in Histories of Suicide. She explains how military suicide remained a constant issue in the latter nineteenth century, by presenting suicide statistics from Miller’s statistics of death by suicide among her majesty’s British Troops published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London. She shows that for each 10-year period from 1860 to 1900 between 22 to 28 suicides were recorded per 100,000 soldiers, with a decline towards the last two decades. Padiak also explains that 43% of these military suicides were as a result of gunshot wounds and 29% were from throat cutting.
During the First World War, suicide cases were rarely officially noted unless they occurred domestically, yet there remains a plethora of anecdotal evidence, including a trench suicide note from 1916, and a concern raised in parliament, which illustrates that soldier suicide remained an underlying issue.
Newspapers from the period show several cases where soldiers took their own lives both within service and as demobilised veterans. The only surviving suicide note on record (not shown here as a mark of respect – for more information see my published chapter) was written by a Scottish soldier, who began his note with ‘I can not stand it anymore…they will not let me come home.’ Another, a former driver in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was wounded out of the army in 1916 and after several attempts to rejoin, encouraged by the rhetoric of the white feather campaign, and shame directed at those, not in service, explained this in a suicide note, and lay down on a train track in 1917 to be decapitated.
These are just of the cases that I have found from my own research, and these two, in particular, came from Scotland. Another issue within this time period was the complete and total lack of knowledge of Post Traumatic Shock, tentatively known as Shell-Shock.
Scotland has a direct relationship with the treatment for Shell-Shock as the Criaglockhart War Hospital became infamous for treating soldiers. The hospital was initially a hydropathic institute specialising in water therapy; however, this evolved during the First World War to include practical recovery techniques including swimming, golf, tennis and cricket. Patients made model yachts, joined the camera club and walked in the grounds. The famous psychologist William Rivers developed the ‘talking cure’ for shell-shocked officers while practising at Craiglockhart on famous patients like the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Sassoon also remains the only recognised war poet to write a poem about the issue of soldier suicide.
In the Second World War, suicide rates again come into question. Henderson et al., argue as a result of their statistical investigation, that suicide rates during the Second World War were higher than during the pre-War and post-War periods. Within their article, they state that:
‘Suicide rates among men aged 15–24 years rose during the Second World War, peaking at 148 per million (41 deaths) during 1942 before declining to 39 per million (10 deaths) by 1945, while the rate among men aged 25–34 years reached 199 per million (43 deaths) during 1943 before falling to 66 per million (23 deaths) by 1946. This was accompanied by an increase in male suicides attributable to firearms and explosives during the War years, which decreased following its conclusion.’ (Henderson et al., 2006).
If suicide cases were mentioned at all, then they were almost always associated with notions of mental illness, or as it was considered within this time period – ‘temporary insanity’.
Suicide within the British Military has clearly been a long-standing issue. For the Scottish Armed Forces, recognition and support for these cases have been a long-standing struggle. To this day, the charter from 1923 which outlines who is entitled to be named on the Honour Roll, explicitly forbids the inclusion of suicide cases:
“A member of the Armed Forces of the Crown or of the Merchant Navy who was either a Scotsman (i.e. born in Scotland or who had a Scottish born father or Mother) or served in a Scottish Regiment and was killed or died (except as a result of suicide) as a result of a wound, injury or disease sustained (a) in a theatre of operations for which a medal has been or is awarded; or (b) whilst on duty in aid of the Civil Power.”
Victor Gregg, a serviceman from the Second World War, recounted in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2015 how there was no care for demobilised men as they left the army in 1945.
“I fought in the Second World War from its start in 1939 to its fiery end in May 1945. By the time I got home, I had witnessed things that I had not thought possible, and my brain was filled with images of suffering that were to haunt me for the next forty years. But for the moment the fighting was over, and the final gift from a grateful country was a civilian suit, a train ticket home and about £100 of back-service pay.”
This lack of consideration would continue for nearly 50 more years within the British Armed forces, with attention only truly beginning after a series of public campaigns and high profile media coverage. The deaths at Deepcut Barracks in England in 1995 and 2002 of four service personnel fueled this fire. The suicides were followed eventually by the Blake Report, which finally published in 2009, presented the following findings.
- The training environment at Deepcut, causing low morale through poor accommodation, limited recreational facilities, and the balance between privacy and dormitory life.
- Ill-disciplined access to firearms at the barracks.
- Poor supervision of trainees.
- A detrimental culture in the barracks had taken root involving ill-discipline, bullying and unofficial punishments.
- A systemic failure of the means for complaint within the barracks.
- Low-quality instructors on the barracks’ staff.
Over the last 20 years, much has been done to improve the mental and physical welfare of serving personnel, and attention is being focused on veterans. However, it is clear that a lack of attention has been the primary method of dealing with these concerns for over a century within the British military.
The simple truth here is, serving and ex-military personnel are taking their own lives. In Scotland, this led to eight separate events in a single week in 2018. In uncertain political, economic, and social times, it is statistically proven that suicide rates across the board may well increase. However, this does mean that attempts to support and prevent these deaths within the scope of the military can not, and are not, being taken.
My research into a century of Military Suicide seeks to uncover the untold stories of those that died, and develop a better understanding of these deaths; firstly because these names have all but been lost to history, but also significantly to attempt to find ways to improve support for veterans and service men and women and save lives in the future.
If you have been affected by any of the information in this article – please contact the following or myself – email@example.com