Veteran Mental Health

A lot of British military personnel don’t experience mental health problems while they are serving, however many do after leaving.

They do face unique risks in service and are put under a great deal of stress during tours of duty, if they do experience mental health problems, they may require particular treatments and particularly mental health services that are very difficult to access.

Mental health problems experienced by veteran personnel are the same as the general population. However, experiences during service and the transition to civilian life mean that different factors may trigger their mental ill-health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and substance abuse affect a significant minority of service personnel and veterans.

What are the risks for veterans?

A number of UK studies have found links between active service and mental health problems in veterans and personnel involved in recent conflicts. A very recent study of 10,000 serving personnel (83% regulars; 27% reservists) found lower than expected levels of PTSD. Common mental disorders and alcohol misuse were the most frequently reported mental health problems among UK armed forces personnel. In particular, levels of alcohol misuse overall were substantially higher than in the general population.


The main findings were:


4% reported probable post-traumatic stress disorder

19.7% reported other common mental disorders 

13% reported alcohol misuse 


  • regulars deployed to Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan were significantly more likely to report alcohol misuse than those not deployed 
  • reservists were more likely to report probable post-traumatic stress disorder than those not deployed 
  • regular personnel in combat roles were more likely than were those in support roles to indicate probable post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • experience of mental health problems was not linked with a number of deployments. 
  • Fear NT, Jones M, Murphy D et al (2010). What are the consequences of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan on the mental health of the UK armed forces? A cohort study. The Lancet (2010) 375 (9728): 1783–1797. 


What are the risks for veterans?


There are an estimated 5 million veterans in the UK, and a further 20,000 personnel leave the forces each year. Lots of Veterans have families and if one person struggles with mental health it affects the whole family.

When soldiers leave the Forces, their healthcare transfers from the military to the NHS. Only around 0.1% of regular service personnel are discharged annually for mental health reasons.

However, some veterans  and family develop mental health problems after leaving service, many of whom will be experiencing PTSD or other Anxiety disorders.


Veteran Suicide Rates

Until recently, little was known about the veterans suicide rate. What is known is that only half of those experiencing mental health problems sought help from the NHS, and those that did were rarely referred to specialist mental health services.


Veterans’ mental health problems may be made worse or caused by post-service factors, such as the difficulty in making the transition to civilian life, marital problems, and loss of family and social support networks. Younger veterans are at high risk of suicide in the first two years after leaving service. Ex-service personnel are also vulnerable to social exclusion and homelessness, both of which are risk factors for mental ill health. Alcohol misuse is also high.

Veterans are killing themselves at an alarming rate but the government is still not recording their deaths. Unlike our allies, the UK government does not keep figures on how many veterans die by suicide and campaigners fear it’s stopping people knowing the true scale of the problem. In Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and the US, the rate of suicide in the military is much higher than the civilian population because they take veterans into account. Veteran Stephen James believes veteran suicide is a ‘hidden epidemic’ and he’s calling on the government to acknowledge how serious suicide is within the military community.  Says ‘The Ministry of Defence either don’t know or don’t wish to acknowledge how serious and severe the problem is. ‘We have looked at the figures that they hold on military suicide which is just based on service personnel, not veterans, and they report the suicide rate being much lower than the civilian population. ‘Whereas the figures we can take, because we include veterans, shows that it’s much higher.’ He added: ‘We are the only developed country in our group of allies that reports it as lower. What’s more likely, that people who are sent to war, people who experience serious trauma, are less likely to have side effects related to that? Or that the government have their figures wrong?’ According to indicative figures Stephen and other campaigners have taken from social media and the press, at least 75 veterans took their own lives last year. Stephen said: ‘It’s not going to be lower, those are the ones we can prove. What’s likely is that it’s much higher.