Peterborough military veterans groups call for law change to save lives

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Supporters of military veterans in Peterborough have backed widespread calls for suicide rates of former service personnel to be recorded, claiming it could save many lives in the future.

An investigation last summer by JPIMedia, the publishers of the Peterborough Telegraph, prompted a national debate as it revealed that the Government does not monitor how many former service personnel take their own lives, despite fears that the number of cases is spiralling.

Steven Pettican, Elaine Danaher and Tony Francis

Steven Pettican, Elaine Danaher and Tony Francis

Now, the House of Commons Defence Committee is pushing for this “data gap” to be filled, amid a row between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) about how this can be done.

Currently the US, Australia and Canada all record the suicide rates of military veterans, and calls for that to be mirrored in the UK have been backed by Tony Francis, honorary branch secretary of the Royal British Legion in Peterborough, Elaine Danaher, founder of Supporters of Combat Stress, and Steven Pettican from Light Project Peterborough, which supports veterans through the Winter Night Shelter and Garden House project (see pages 12 and 13).

Asked if recording the suicides of veterans could help prevent other former service personnel from taking their lives, all three were emphatic in their responses.

“It would do,” declared Tony. “It needs to be done.

An investigation by JPIMedia Investigations

An investigation by JPIMedia Investigations

“Once they see how many veterans there are they will do something about it. The Government has to step up to help guys, women and their families.

“Nobody knows the level of it because it’s not been recorded. There needs to be statistics available. The only time we find out there has been a suicide is on a Facebook group.”

Supporters of Combat Stress brings agencies who support veterans together on the first Tuesday of every month in the Knights’ Chamber at the cathedral.

Elaine has seen the effects of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as one of her relatives has been diagnosed with it, with symptoms including anxiety, anger and isolation.

She said she has seen veterans as young as 25 coming to find help at the support events.

“The Royal British Legion regional case officer said Cambridgeshire has the most veterans wanting help in the whole of East Anglia,” Elaine continued. “We’re dealing with so many cases in Cambridgeshire it’s unreal. They have not got the manpower to do it.”

Veterans often find it hard to adjust to civilian life after leaving the armed forces, while many struggle to reveal their mental health problems.

Steven said: “People just want to know you’re there for them. They come to Garden House and they are quite quiet and don’t necessarily want to open up.

“Where we have got wins, is when you listen to people. Steadily and slowly they engage and you see a difference.”

Elaine added: “In the military you’re part of a big family. In civvy street you’re on your own and don’t know where to turn.”

Tony said: “There are people out there who are brilliant and they could do so much more if they had funding.”

He suggested having a single building in Peterborough for all agencies to be represented could make a huge difference.

“That would reduce the level of suicides because then they would know they can get the help,” added Tony.

Armed Forces Day is being held on June 29, and there will be many stalls in Cathedral Square for people to speak to different organisations.

Where to get help

If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article, help and advice is available from these organisations:

Veterans Gateway: 0808 802 1212 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Veterans UK: 0808 1914218 (8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/military-healthcare/nhs-mental-health-services-for-veterans/

Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

Help for Heroes: 01980 844280 (weekdays, between 9am and 5pm

Royal British Legion: 0808 802 8080 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week)

Significant increases in veteran suicide rates over past decade

Allied nations like the US, Australia and Canada all record the number of veteran suicides closely and have found significant increases in the past decade.

Since JPIMedia Investigations first highlighted the issue, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood announced the Government would begin a study into suicide rates among veterans who previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also said in November that it was his ambition “to understand from every coroner whether an individual death is a veteran or not”.

However, JPIMedia Investigations can reveal a row at the heart of Government over the issue, with the MoJ claiming it is not feasible for coroners to record veteran suicides.

An MoJ spokesman said there would be difficulties in accurately establishing a victim’s occupational history.

“For this reason, there are no plans to require coroners to record this kind of information in the context of suicide conclusions,” the spokesperson said.

Jeff Williams, a former Royal Marine Sergeant Major and campaigner with the Birmingham-based group Veterans Against Suicide, said: “I am not surprised, but I am pretty devastated, because a lot of people in the veterans community have hung their hats on this happening.

“We were under the impression that this was in the late stages of being implemented and it wasn’t going to be a problem.”

His group has recorded the suspected suicide of five veterans and four serving members of the forces so far this year, with 80 former and current service personnel believed to have taken their lives in 2018.

It should be straightforward for coroners to ask families if their loved ones were veterans, he said.

“This is just a cop-out in my opinion.”

The MoD is considering how to respond to the setback.

An MoD spokeswoman replied: “We take the wellbeing of all those who have served extremely seriously, and we are currently considering how we can better understand the cohort of veterans who take their own lives.”

The Defence Committee report also called on the Government to set up a world-class mental health treatment centre for serving British military personnel and veterans.

Committee member Ruth Smeeth MP said: “Fundamental issues still clearly exist, with scandalously little funding allocated to veteran-specific services, and it is unacceptable that veterans and their families should feel abandoned by the state as a result.”