Leaders: Suicides show need for better monitoring

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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Casualties of war are not to be counted on the battle-field alone. The list stretches long after soldiers have returned home and when the trauma of front line experience fully catches up with them.

So it has proved in Afghanistan, with a tragic legacy of blighted lives and suicides. And this latent death toll is substantially higher than generally appreciated.

According to a BBC Panorama documentary, more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives last year than died fighting in front line duty in Afghanistan over the same period. A total of 21 serving soldiers killed themselves last year, along with 29 veterans. The Afghanistan death toll was 44, of whom 40 died in action.

The Ministry of Defence maintains that rates of suicide within the serving military are lower than comparative rates in the civilian population. Seven serving soldiers have been confirmed as having killed themselves last year, and inquests are pending for a further 14 deaths where suicide is suspected. However, unlike the United States where the experiences of the Vietnam and Gulf wars have brought greater awareness of the problem, the British government does not record the suicide rate among ex-soldiers.

Surgeon-Captain John Sharpley, the army’s highest ranking psychiatrist, is worried that the MoD is understating the number of cases they have. In this, he is almost certainly right. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, wants the suicide rate among veterans to be monitored.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a complex and difficult area, both in diagnosis and treatment. In some cases it may be one of a series of factors that account for depression, social isolation and suicide attempts. But in many cases it can be the decisive trigger. PTSD is the body’s “natural response” to distressing events. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety and depression. One of the reasons that makes it difficult to quantify exactly is the length of time it can take to manifest itself in people who have left the forces. In some cases the symptoms may not be obvious at the time of discharge. A soldier may be deemed to have “coped” in the immediate aftermath. But on return home and with time for reflection, memories and nightmares of the trauma can haunt victims and lead to breakdown.

The Army can provide considerable help to serving soldiers when the condition is identified. Indeed, the MoD has committed £7.4 million to ensure there is extensive mental health support in place for everyone who needs it. But what is needed is greater surveillance to be in place that ensures monitoring of those who have left military service, whether or not they showed signs of mental illness. At present charities do excellent work in helping veterans. But there is surely a compelling case for this to be put on a more formal footing to allow the MoD to fulfil its duty of care.

Gardening not all a bed of roses

Like a lot of research, it probably just tells you what you already knew. Gardening makes you happy. So says a poll of 1,500 adults which finds that 80 per cent of gardeners feel satisfied with their lives compared with 67 per cent for non-gardeners, while 93 per cent of gardeners think gardening improves their mood.

But that does not mean there is nothing to be learnt from this survey. It is certainly the case that many do find gardening a worthwhile and fulfilling hobby that can give pleasure. But some reflection is needed here. Gardening has been on the decline in recent years because households where both partners are working just do not have the time. A gravel driveway with concrete bollards and crazy paving can provide great peace of mind.

And even among garden

enthusiasts there can be a severe under-estimate of the tedious work a garden can involve. There’s the relentless weeding, hedge trimming, lawn mowing, watering and constant tidying that a garden requires, before dealing with plants that disappoint, shrubs that shrivel in transfer from nursery to domestic border and the frustration of having your best floribundas blighted by black spot or powdery mildew or chewed to pieces by invading stags. And that’s not even thinking about gardening in the rain.

Gardening is best when the other half does it and there is time to sit back in the lounger and listen to their gasping as the weeding and mowing and trimming is done. Better still, when you have a professional gardener, a result that looks straight out of the pages of Gardeners’ World and you can put your feet up without all that effort. And you both get to be happy.