Data Science

Using data to find out about the mental health of veterans

Farr Institute researchers at the University of Glasgow studied the medical records of people in Scotland to compare the health of military personnel to the rest of the population.

Photo of soldiers marching

School of Health and Wellbeing research theme

Data Science

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Addressing Inequalities

The challenge

Most research into understanding the health of military veterans compared to the general population looks at the health of veterans who served in a particular conflict or at single medical conditions. The results of such studies can’t always be applied to all military veterans and the results do not take into account factors such as length of service, changes in health promotion within the military and social changes such as attitudes to smoking and alcohol consumption. A more complete picture of the health of military veterans can be achieved by linking multiple NHS Scotland records, allowing researchers to study the health of veterans after their military service.

The research

Researchers from the University of Glasgow were able to identify people in Scotland who had served in the military by the medical records held by their GP surgeries. The team found more than 56,000 veterans who were born between 1945 and 1985. These records were then virtually gathered together to form a sub-group of military personnel from the Scottish population that researchers could study in more detail. To do this, information about hospital admissions, mental healthcare, where people lived and death certificates were linked together in a secure way which protected the identity and privacy of individuals. A larger virtual group was then created including nearly 173,000 individuals who had never served in the military but matched the veterans in age, sex and the area in which they lived. The team then studied and compared the medical histories of both groups, looking at conditions such as mental illness, heart disease and alcohol related illness.

The results

The Scottish Veterans Health Study has demonstrated that while older veterans (born 1945-1959) may have had overall poorer health than those who had not served in the military, younger veterans had similar if not better overall health than civilians. One of the reasons for this could be due to the military beginning to promote a healthier lifestyle during service years, encouraging a decrease in risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and increasing the fitness of soldiers. There was no indication that veterans who served their full term in the military suffered from mental illness more than civilians. However, veterans who left the military early were at higher risk of mental illness.

The impact

The methods used in this research to create a virtual sub-group of the population for scientists to study can be applied to many areas of health research. Studying veterans as a population in this way could help improve our knowledge about the health of military personnel and whether they are at higher risk of developing particular diseases compared to the rest of the population. It is also possible to study the impact that health promotion initiatives such as anti-smoking campaigns and educating about the effects of alcohol misuse have during military training and service. By using data in research, the team has been able improve our understanding of the health of veterans in Scotland and how care can be improved to support them.

Find out more about health services for veterans in Scotland 


Professor Jill Pell

This case study is featured in the Farr Institute "100 Ways of Using Data to Make Lives Better" series.