Preliminary findings from a UK study into suicide bereavement among the Armed Forces community will be used to create new support packs for bereaved serving personnel, veterans and families, an international conference heard.Dr Sharon McDonnell pictured during her presentation of the findings.png

Dr Sharon McDonnell, MD of the organisation Suicide Bereavement UK and honorary research fellow at the University of Manchester, has presented the initial findings of her and colleagues’ Armed Forces Bereavement Study, which has been underway for the past 16 months, funded by NHS England and approved by the Ministry of Defence.

Speaking at the Suicide Bereavement UK international conference last month, Dr McDonnell said the study had involved interviewing serving personnel bereaved by suicide for the first time in the UK, along with ex-serving personnel and families, with the aim of identifying their experiences and needs and also to co-produce evidence-informed suicide bereavement support packs for the future.

Speaking about the need for such a study, she shared previous research findings including that the number of Army male suicides has increased since 2017, with the risk of suicide among men in the Army now the same as the UK general population for the first time since the 1990s, with rates “significantly higher” among Army men aged 20-24 (MoD, 2023).

A previous study among the veteran community found suicide rate in veterans is no greater than that of the general population but that suicide risk was two to four times higher in male and female veterans aged under 25 years, than for the same age groups in the general population.

She said factors which increase the suicide risk of veterans include being male, if they’re discharged from the UK Armed Forces between ages 16-34; untrained when discharged; receiving an administrative, disciplinary or medical discharge; those who have served in the Army and leave on a non-voluntary basis and younger veterans with less than 10 years’ service.

Dr McDonnell’s study conducted a total of 30 qualitative, in-depth interviews with those who have lost someone serving or a veteran to suicide and identified key issues inlcluding good and bad practice for serving personnel and veterans and how those bereaved would like to be cared for.

It has so far resulted in three new suicide bereavement guides, called At Your Side, which are currently being produced – for serving personnel, veterans and families – each exploring six themes highlighted trhough the study: suicide and its impact, grief responses, coping responses, practical matters, talking to children and young people about suicide and useful contact and resources.

In her presentation, Dr McDonnell thanked the Armed Forces community for engaging with researchers and “sharing stuff they’ve never talked about” to create these guides to help others.

She added: “I would argue these Armed Forces guides acknowledge, reassure, inform, guide, signpost, empower, generate hope and have the potential to save lives.”

The study will also feed its findings into the Armed Forces Suicide Prevention Strategy which was launched earlier this year.


Watch: Dr McDonnell's presentation of the preliminary findings of the Armed Forces Bereavement Study