Suicide rate higher among involuntary medical discharge veterans

3 minute read

Soldiers who are discharged from the Australian Defence Force on medical grounds are almost three times more likely than the general population to take their own life.

Most Australian Defence Force veterans have the same risk of dying by suicide as the general population, but it’s a very different story for specific subgroups.

Around 1700 current and former ADF service men and women have died by suicide over the 24 years to 2021, according to new data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Males made up the large majority of those deaths, with women only accounting for 8%. The AIHW noted in multiple places that, because of the lower numbers, the data on female suicides may be unreliable.

Around 80% of the deaths occurred post-discharge; very few people died by suicide while still enlisted.

It’s in the post-discharge cohort that the biggest patterns begin to emerge.

The suicide rate among male veterans who left the ADF for voluntary or administrative reasons between 2003 and 2021 was around 20 deaths per 100,000 population per year, which is not statistically different to the age-standardised suicide rate for that time.

But men who were involuntarily discharged for non-medical reasons died by suicide at a rate of 35 per 100,000 population and men who were involuntarily discharged for medical reasons died by suicide at a rate of 67 per 100,000 population.

“Of the sub-populations studied in this report, the male involuntary medical separation cohort has the highest suicide rate,” the AIHW said.

“Last year’s modelling analysis chapter showed that the involuntary medical separation group was the most at-risk subpopulation for death by suicide among the ex-serving population, even when accounting for other variables such as age, sex and service-related characteristics.”

One thing that the AIHW has not been able to do so far is compare the suicide rates of men who were discharged for medical reasons and members of the general population who have similar medical conditions.

Another interesting feature of the data was that length of service had a negative correlation with suicide rate; men who served one year or less were far more likely to die by suicide than those who served 20 years or more.

Where men who served in the ADF for a matter of months had a suicide rate of 47.5 per 100,000 population, men who served between one and five years had a suicide rate of about 33 per 100,000.

This figure continued to trend downward as length of service increased, and men who served for 20 years or more before leaving the ADF had a suicide rate of 16 per 100,000 population.

It’s also worth knowing that suicide rates per 100,000 population remained stable no matter the time since discharge.

This means a man who was discharged less than a year ago is just as likely to die by suicide as a man who was discharged five, 10 or 20 years ago.

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