The media often portray veterans in general as people struggling with combat stress, while the government insist that the mental health of armed forces personnel is just as good as among civilians.
What we know
That neither claim is accurate.
Military vs civilian life
The research shows clearly that stress-related mental health problems are more common in the armed forces than in civilian life. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety/depression are each about twice as common in the military as among civilians, for example.
Stress-related mental health problems are more common in the army than in the navy or RAF, and more common among enlisted personnel than among officers.
Within the army, problems are more common among soldiers who’ve been sent to war (e.g. Iraq/Afghanistan), especially the infantry.
Soldiers, particularly those in the infantry, tend to come from a deprived background, which carries its own risks to mental health.
But it is also clear from the research that military life, especially if it includes being sent to a war zone, increases the risk as well.
So – in war it’s the most vulnerable individuals who end up having the most traumatic experiences, and are then most affected by stress.
The risk of having mental health problems rises again after leaving the armed forces – ex-forces personnel (i.e. veterans) are more likely to have stress-related mental health problems than currently serving personnel – especially those who leave the armed forces in the first four years.
On top of this, many veterans have mental health problems that don’t quite meet the definition of a diagnosis. They’re counted as healthy in the statistics even though they don’t feel well themselves.
At the same time, it’s also important to remember that many veterans don’t have PTSD and other stress-related problems. We’re talking here about a substantial minority, rather than a majority.
What we need
What we really need is research into the mental health of groups at higher risk, particularly the infantry and Royal Marines, and especially those who’ve left the forces.
Most of the sources used for this page are set out in D Gee, The Last Ambush: Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces (2013)
In addition, these more recent sources have been used:
- Stevelink et al., ‘Mental health outcomes at the end of the British involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts: a cohort study’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2018.
- Goodwin et al,, ‘Are common mental disorders more prevalent in the UK serving military compared to the general working population?’, Psychological Medicine, 2015.