Sussex coroners quiet on military suicide figures amid calls for better recording of veteran deaths

Sussex coroners failed to reply to a letter from Johnston Press Investigations asking them to provide data on the number of veterans who have taken their lives since 2015.

Out of 98 coroners in England and Wales, and their equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, just one was able to provide any figures.

The vast majority were unable to shed light on the issue, while others – including the three responsible for Sussex – did not reply to the hand-posted correspondence.

Dr Walter Busuttil, consultant psychiatrist and medical director at Combat Stress, the UK’s leading charity for veterans’ mental health, claimed: “In the UK, coroners are reluctant to call something a suicide unless it is obvious. They will often go with a narrative verdict.

“What this means is that we haven’t got any accurate information relating to the rate of suicides among anybody in this country.

“Other countries record more accurate suicide studies.”

Several coroners backed calls for such data to be kept in a readily-accessible format, while one said a computer system ‘as old Noah’ prevented identification of veterans as a specific group in recording suicide statistics.

Unable to source statistics from coroners, JP Investigations submitted Freedom of Information requests to mental health NHS trusts.

Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust said it had 253 military veterans in its services in the period November 26 to date. November 26 marked the date it began recording ex-service patients.

The trust said it would take a ‘significant amount of time’ to review its data to highlight suspected suicides.

After years of criticism, the Government has begun to put significant resources into mental health provision for both serving personnel and veterans, amounting to £22m a year for the next decade.

Among measures launched in the last 18 months is an online ‘Veterans’ Gateway’ to streamline access to help and a tailored NHS service to help personnel leaving the armed services. A Veterans’ ID card to allow ex-servicemen and women identify themselves and access services is also in the pipeline.

But a large number of those interviewed by JP Investigations were sharply critical of the absence of reliable data, arguing that such information would be straightforward to collect from inquest proceedings or NHS records.

The MoD told JP Investigations that provision of veterans’ mental healthcare is ‘primarily’ the responsibility of the NHS and devolved administrations. It added that it had “no ability” to direct coroners or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland.

A MoD spokesperson said: “While rates of suicide are significantly lower in the Armed Forces than the general population, any suicide is a tragedy for the individual, their family, friends and colleagues and we take each case extremely seriously.

“The reasons people take their lives can vary and are not necessarily linked to their service. Help is available for serving personnel, their families and veterans, including through the two 24-hour mental health helplines provided by Combat Stress.”

More stories as part of this investigation

How Australia, The US and Canada keep track of ex-military suicide rates

Ex-serviceman who battled suicidal thoughts backs our military suicides campaign