Early middle age suicide takes toll on UK veteran ranks

Men who left the military after years of service in war zones are paying a heavy price

Claire Lilly is campaigning after the death of her ex-husband Alan Forcer
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The former wife of a military veteran who took his own life has called for more help for vulnerable ex-service personnel, after statistics showed young male veterans in the UK are at substantially higher risk of suicide than other men their age.

Claire Lilly’s ex-husband, Alan Forcer, who had been suffering from complex post-traumatic stress disorder, died aged 40 – an age considered at higher risk of suicide among veterans, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Suicides by veterans accounted for almost 5 per cent of all deaths by suicide in England and Wales in 2021, it said.

There were 253 suicides among UK armed forces veterans that year, out of a total of 5,175 suicides among people aged 16 years and over in the two countries, equating to 4.9 per cent.

The vast majority – 237 or 93.7 per cent – of veterans who died by suicide were male.

This is equivalent to approximately 15 suicides per 100,000 UK armed forces veterans, with 16 suicides per 100,000 male veterans and seven suicides per 100,000 female veterans, the government department said.

When broken down by age, the statistics showed male veterans aged 25 to 44 years had a much higher rate of suicide compared with the same age group of males in the general population.

The rate for male veterans aged between 25 and 34 was 38.2 deaths per 100,000 and 33.5 deaths per 100,000 among those aged 35 to 44.

This compared to 18 deaths per 100,000 among 25 to 34-year-olds in the general population and 18.8 deaths per 100,000 among men aged 35 to 44.

It is not known how many of those who died by suicide fought in a conflict, the last major one being in Afghanistan, which lasted for 13 years, ending with the handover of Camp Bastion to Afghan forces in 2014.

A number of British troops remained in the country, working in training and advisory roles, until the fall of Kabul in 2021.

Ms Lilly told The National her former husband, who served in the Coldstream Guards, Irish Guards and Household Cavalry, undertook tours of Northern Ireland and Kosovo at the height of the conflicts and witnessed numerous traumatic events.

When he went missing in 2020, she called the police and shared how he was suffering from complex PTSD and had been in and out of trauma therapy. Funding for this had recently been cut.

She also shared how he was drug and alcohol dependent and that he had tried to take his life before.

“As a family we were watching Alan's train wreck and we knew the eventual destination, because there were various suicide attempts and obviously, [he] had strong suicidal ideation,” she said.

Despite this, “Alan was only ever deemed as a medium risk”, she added.

Ms Lilly has developed a system called the Forcer Protocol, named after her former husband, which is being piloted by Manchester Police as part of a six-month trial.

It requires call handlers to ask people reporting a missing person whether they are a veteran, so they can be flagged appropriately as high-risk.

It also gives officers access to veterans’ details, such as any medication they may be taking, so they can better assess their risk of suicide, as well as information, including the name of their bank, to help locate them.

“It's been awful. It's been really awful. I'm not going to lie, but we are adamant [something good will come of it],” she said.

“That's why I've specifically gone into the area of policing, because when you look at key central figures that will come into contact with a veteran … they are one of them.”

She said a large proportion of serving personnel do go on to lead fulfilling lives once they leave the military.

“However, we need to remain mindful that there is a percentage, a cohort, that needs to have a blanket of protection put around them to help them integrate and flourish in society so that they don't become a problem for policing, for the NHS and services.”

The new analysis, which included reservists, primarily focused on male suicides due to the predominantly male composition of the veteran population, the ONS said.

David Mais, health statistician at the ONS, said: “This is the first time we have published analysis of suicide among UK armed forces veterans in England and Wales.

“By working alongside the Office for Veterans' Affairs and the Ministry of Defence on this important topic, we hope to increase understanding of where services and support are needed the most among our veterans.

“Today's findings show that while overall veterans are not at an increased risk of suicide, there was an increased risk among those aged 25 to 44 when compared to the general population.

“Every suicide is a tragedy, and this data will provide new insight to help some of the most vulnerable in society.”

Updated: April 18, 2024, 4:35 PM