Young soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, a new report claims.
The report, published today by human rights group ForcesWatch, found that younger recruits are significantly more likely than older personnel to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); to drink at levels harmful to health; and to behave violently on their return from war.
And it said that young recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greatest risk.
The report, The Last Ambush? Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces, calls for the minimum age of recruitment to be raised to 18 to avoid exposing the youngest soldiers to the most trauma.
The report claims to draw on more than 150 sources, including 41 studies investigating the prevalence and risk of six mental health-related problems in the British armed forces such as PTSD, mental disorders such as types of anxiety and depression, harmful drinking, post-deployment violence, self-harm, and suicide.
It said that 8% of Iraq war veterans who enlisted without GCSEs or the Scottish equivalent suffered with PTSD after their deployment, compared with 4% in the armed forces as a whole and 3% in the general population.
According to the report, 26% of personnel aged 18-24 were found to be drinking at harmful levels - which it said was twice the 13% average for the armed forces and more than three times the 8% rate found among civilians of similar age.
It also found that 24% of Iraq war veterans in the lowest ranks - typically the youngest - reported behaving violently in the weeks after coming home. T his compared to an average of 13% across the armed forces.
As a group, younger solders from a dverse childhood backgrounds are more vulnerable to war stress and are also over-represented in frontline infantry roles, where they are most likely to be exposed to traumatic experiences, the report claims.
It says that recruits who enlist at 16 or 17, who are deployable to war as soon as they turn 18, are channelled disproportionately into the infantry, and that in the last five years the infantry received nearly a third (32%) of all new recruits under 18, despite accounting for just 14% of the armed forces.
According to the report, those who enlist as adults and have stronger qualifications join a wider range of roles, so are less exposed to traumatic stress.
Its authors are calling for the minimum age of recruitment by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to be raised to 18, claiming that the UK is the only state in the European Union to recruit from age 16 and one of only 19 worldwide, with most state armed forces now recruiting only adults.
Author David Gee said: "When it comes to the trauma of warfare, recruits from the poorest backgrounds face a 'perfect storm' of pre-existing vulnerability and greater battlefield exposure.
"Recruiting 16-year-olds into the infantry puts the most vulnerable group in roles most exposed to trauma when they turn 18 and are sent to war."
The report claims that over the past 20 years, the suicide rate has been 82% higher among male soldiers under 20 than in civilian men of the same age, and that between 1996 and 2005 the suicide rate among former armed forces personnel under 20 was nearly three times as high as the same age group in the general population.
It also said that the rate of violent offending among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans after their deployment was twice what it was before they enlisted, and added that the true prevalence of mental health problems in the armed forces was likely to be higher than the figures suggest because of stigma associated with reporting problems.
But an MoD spokesman said : "This report completely ignores the benefits and opportunities that a military career offers young people.
"It provides them challenging and constructive education, training and employment, equipping them with valuable and transferable skills for life.
"It is also important to put these figures in context as independent research shows the rates of PTSD are similar to rates in the civilian population and the rates of suicide are actually lower.
"However, we take this issue extremely seriously which is precisely why this Government has committed £7.4 million to improving services and why we are working to reduce the stigma of mental illness through a number of initiatives and campaigns.
"We continue to actively recruit across all age groups and as part of our duty of care to our recruits no young person under the age of 18 years may join our armed forces without the formal written consent of their parent or guardian."
The MoD said independent research from Kings Centre for Military Health in 2010 reported a 4% rate of PTSD within the armed forces, in line with the civilian population which showed a range of 3%-7% of PTSD in the general population.
And it said there had been a clear downward trend in suicide and underdetermined death rates in the armed forces over the last 28 years.
It said there are no plans to revisit the Government's recruitment policy for under-18s and said its policies on under-18s in service comply with national and international law.