What’s behind the surge in suicides by UK veterans of the Afghan war?

Government expresses concern as 14 former soldiers kill themselves in two months

British army soldier
(Image credit: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

There has been a surge in suicides this year among former British soldiers who took part in the war in Afghanistan.

More than 70 former and serving personnel took their lives in 2018 and at least 50 suicides occurred last year. Fourteen former and serving personnel are thought to have taken their own lives in the past two months alone.

In response to the news, the minister for veterans, Johnny Mercer said that he would accelerate government plans for a new mental health service for veterans.

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Speaking to The Times, he said that “one suicide is one too many,” adding that plans would be brought forward by two months for a “high-intensity” mental health programme for those who are “at their most poorly”.

He said he was particularly concerned about a cluster of recent deaths from “a specific unit that served at a specific time in Afghanistan... the bloodiest time”. The unit concerned is not being named to avoid the chance of publicity causing further loss of life.

Research suggests that delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder can arrive a decade or more after the event in question.

“I’m scratching around looking at evidence from across the globe, including the US, Israel and Australia, to understand if there is an event at the ten-year point. I’m yet to see a conclusive basis for that,” said Mercer.

The government has previously been accused of turning a blind eye to the issue, because it did not gather data on veterans, unlike the US, Canada and Australia. The Ministry of Defence has agreed to expand a study into deaths among those who served between 2001 and 2014.

In February, it was revealed that suicides in the active-duty US Air Force surged in 2019 to the highest total in at least three decades.

If you or a person you’re worried about expresses suicidal feelings, you or they should contact a GP or NHS 111. You can also call the Samaritans free on 116 123 for confidential, 24-hour support, or Mind, the mental health charity, on 0300 123 3393.

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