by Lynda Goetz
An army veteran is planning a cross-country kayak, from Preston Brook near Liverpool to Putney Bridge, to raise funds for a memorial arboretum* to soldiers or former soldiers who took their own lives. Sgt. Edward Mackenzie apparently knew 17 of these, including his best friend. That is a shocking number, even if this is spread over the 26 years Sgt. Mackenzie was in service. Last summer, another ex-soldier, Graham Stobbs, undertook a kayak challenge of 322 miles along the south coast and across to France to raise funds for mental health support for both veterans and serving personnel. A few years ago, two former Royal Marines, veterans of the Falklands conflict kayaked around the islands to raise money for the Royal Marines Charity and raise awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to the Ministry of Defence in a document published in March last year, “suicide remains a rare event in the UK armed forces” (from 2000 to 2019 there were a total of 306, of which only 18 were women). Most of the recorded suicides are male, according with general statistics, which show three-quarters of suicides to be men. However, according to the website Theyworkforyou.com in answer to a written question last year, Johnny Mercer M.P. replied for the Government that “suicide data for veterans of the UK Armed Forces is not currently captured”, although this matter was being addressed.
My nephew, aged 36 and a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq, took his own life on 21st May. He had made two serious attempts to do so last autumn; so when it finally happened, it came as a shock to the family, but not exactly as a surprise. His first attempt made in September last year was however completely shocking and had been meant to succeed. We had all been worried about him, but the way he had said to some of us “I have even contemplated tying a rope around my neck and throwing myself out of a tree”, did not signal to us that he really would try to do exactly that. A series of fortuitous and fortunate (at least to us) circumstances meant that he was cut down immediately he jumped, given CPR and rushed by air ambulance to hospital.
It is hard for those of us who have never experienced any desire to bring our lives to a premature end to understand or get into the mind-set of someone who has. How did they get to that dark place of total hopelessness? Most of us have at some time or another felt miserable, even depressed, as life hands out to each one of us our share of setbacks, disasters and even tragedies, but the majority, even in the face of such events, feel an overwhelming instinct for survival. At what point does that survival instinct get lost?
My nephew was, unsurprisingly, physically injured by his first suicide attempt. Whether he had suffered hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) for long enough to have caused problems was unclear from the scans. However, the physical damage caused to his body was traumatic and was the thing he decided to focus on, doing rehabilitation exercises and attempting to regain at least some of the physical fitness he had always prided himself on. Progress was, in his eyes, slow. As for his mental state, this was hard to gauge. He was irascible and frustrated, but claimed he saw himself as having a “second chance”. A month later he took an overdose of the drugs for which he had convinced doctors and family he should be responsible. Once again he was pulled back from the brink by family, friends and the emergency services. He was not grateful.
In a conversation with him on the phone, a week before he succeeded in finally ending his life, he explained that he could not see a way forward or a future. He felt that he had crammed into his three and a half decades more lifetimes than most people experience in twice as many years. He had spent 11 years in the military and then in the years since he left pursuing a number of different jobs and activities which took him around the world. He had skied and cycled competitively whilst in the army. He had pursued adrenalin-fuelled sports such as kite-surfing. Somehow, although he felt he wanted a more settled life and a family, he shied away from the actual reality of working towards this, even when opportunities presented themselves. His tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had left their mark in various ways, but he never stayed long enough in one place to get any real help or his physical or mental problems investigated.
PTSD in veterans is something which is known about and there is help available. Talking to other veterans is recognised as being more beneficial than talking to medical practitioners or counsellors who cannot understand the experiences they have had or the life they have led. Perhaps one difficulty is that help is not from any one particular source. Add to this the fact that PTSD may be combined with other, childhood issues, which require long-term mental health help. Ex-servicemen furthermore, tend not to be the most phlegmatic of characters. Many are by nature impatient, compulsive and addictive personality types. Mental health problems, insofar as we know how to treat them at all, tend not to be the sort to respond to ‘quick-fix’ scenarios.
An acquaintance whose god-daughter took her own life by throwing herself off a bridge, claimed that distressed as her family were, they said that it brought to a close 30 years of “fearing the worst”. In spite of the fact that their daughter was happily married with two healthy young children and a good job, she had been threatening to end her life since she had been in her teens. Somehow, all the good luck in the world had not changed that mind-set. At the other end of the spectrum are those who, living in war-torn parts of the world, have seen their entire families wiped out before their eyes and yet somehow manage to find the strength to carry on. It would seem we are still a long way from understanding these very different ways of dealing with being human.
In most religions suicide is regarded as wrong. Our lives are not ours to control. As religious societies have given way to secular societies in many parts of the world, this approach no longer holds sway. Even so, the idea that one should be in control of one’s own death is hardly a popular one. We are still struggling with the idea that those with a terminal illness should be able to call time on their suffering, let alone those in the prime of life with ostensibly nothing wrong with them. How though should we deal with those who put forward a ‘rational’ argument for ending a life they find insufferable?
As for my nephew, all his family and many friends did all that they could. None of it was enough. At the end he made his choice. Should we blame ourselves for somehow not doing sufficient or not doing it right? Should we blame the State for insufficient support? I think not. He, like many of those who choose to end their lives, had plenty going for him, but somehow he couldn’t see it that way; or perhaps he could, but there were too many moments when it seemed too overwhelmingly difficult to deal with. One could blame PTSD or, as Prince Harry prefers to do, his parents, the Institution, or the system, but at the end of the day those who do finally choose this option (and I am not suggesting that either Prince Harry or Meghan ever will) are ‘troubled souls’ and as yet our understanding of mental health would appear to be a long way from knowing how to treat such people. State funding is clearly not available and charities plugging the gaps are not able to plug all of them.
Perhaps if the funding were boundless and the pockets of families and/or the State infinitely deep then we may find a way to prevent such individuals from seeking their own peace in this way. In the meantime, perhaps a contribution to that memorial arboretum might at least give those servicemen and veterans a small recognition. As for those not in that category, perhaps, until such time as we have more answers and can save these people, many of whom are young, a memorial or annual celebration of their lives and acknowledgement of their suffering might be something worth considering?