Researchers at The University of Manchester's Centre for Suicide Prevention linked UK military discharge data between 1996 and 2005 with details of suicides collected by the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicides and Homicides.
The study in PLoS Medicine, revealed that ex-servicemen under 24 years old were at greatest risk of suicide, with those in lower ranks and shorter military careers proving most vulnerable. The report's authors, Professor Nav Kapur and colleagues, were unable to prove why younger ex-military personnel had higher rates of suicide than men of the same age in the general population but suggest three possibilities.
"One explanation for the higher suicide risk among young ex-military personnel is that those entering military service at a young age are already vulnerable to suicide, which would explain why those serving for a relatively short period of time before being discharged were most likely to take their own lives," said Kapur, lead author and professor of psychiatry and population health at Manchester University.
"A second explanation is the difficulty a minority of individuals experience making the transition to civilian life.
"However, a third possibility that we could not explore in this study is that exposure to adverse experiences during military service or active deployment played a role in the two to three-fold increase in suicide among young veterans, although many of those most at risk had not completed basic training and therefore had not deployed overseas."
The study, funded by the Veterans Policy Unit in the UK Ministry of Defence, also found that the suicide risk was highest among young men leaving the Armed Forces within the first two years of discharge.
The risk of suicide was also higher in young women aged under 20 years compared with the general population, but the overall numbers were small.
The overall suicide risk was no greater for ex-military personnel than for civilians when all age groups were considered – 16 to 49 years. Men aged 30-49 years had a lower rate of suicide than the general population.
During the study period 233,803 individuals left the Armed Forces, of which 224 took their own lives. Worryingly, the research also found that veterans had a low rate of contact with mental health professionals in the year before death – just 14% for those under 20 years of age and 20% for those under 24 years.
"Whatever the explanation for our findings, these individuals may benefit from some form of intervention," said Professor Kapur. "Initial pre-recruitment interview, medical examination and training are important in ensuring military health but it should be recognised that those discharged at any of these stages may be at higher risk of suicide."
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