March 2, 2009 / 1:28 PM / 10 years ago

Study raises alarm on suicide risk for UK soldiers

LONDON (Reuters) - Young British men who have left the military are up to three times more likely to kill themselves than people in the general population or those remaining in service, researchers said Monday.

Men younger than 24 years of age who served a short stint and had a low rank were at the highest risk of suicide, according to the study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.

The findings come after a serving holder of Britain’s highest military medal accused the government last week of failing to provide enough care for soldiers suffering mental trauma after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, awarded the Victoria Cross for saving the lives of comrades in Iraq, said the government had not done enough to help soldiers suffering from severe combat stress, depression and mental breakdowns.

Nav Kapur of the University of Manchester and colleagues said their study highlights the need to offer suicide prevention programs for young men who may be more likely to kill themselves after leaving the military.

But the researchers cautioned these young may have had problems before joining the military, and the increased risk may not have anything to do with their armed forces experience.

“Young men who leave the British armed forces were at increased risk of suicide,” they wrote. “This may reflect pre-service vulnerabilities rather than factors related to service experiences or discharge.”

The stress of transitioning to civilian life or bad experiences while serving might also play a role, they added.

A large U.S. study in 2007 found that U.S. male veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide than people with no military experience.

This suggested doctors treating troops returning from places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be alert for signs of depression and suicidal tendencies, researchers said.

Kapur and colleagues collected information about all suicides in Britain since 1996. They found the overall suicide rate among all veterans was similar to the general population but the risk was two to three times higher among young men who left the service.

The suicide risk was highest in the first two years after leaving the military, but it remained high for several years.

“These findings are likely to have relevance to other Western countries with professional Armed Services,” Kapur and colleagues wrote. “Whatever the explanation of our findings, these individuals may benefit from some sort of intervention.”

Editing by Matthew Jones

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