The Canadian military has been burdened with nine suicides since December and these have been used by Veterans advocates, opposition politicians and the media to point out that not enough is being done to give soldiers the support and assistance they need to reverse this trend.
Since the early 90s Canada’s military has been on constant deployments, first in the former Yugoslavia and the past 12 years in Afghanistan. For a small regular force, supplemented by reserve soldiers, this has taken a toll, with multiple tours.
While some of the stigma associated with mental health issues has been removed, it is still very difficult for soldiers, especially in the combat arms trades to step forward to discuss these issues. Junior leaders, while aware of the problem, have not had enough training to recognize the symptoms, nor do they know how to deal with first line intervention.
There is also some question regarding follow up on completion of a tour by the medical community and immediate supervisors. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may not appear immediately after a tour, but could be triggered by an event long after a tour has been completed.
Add to that the readjustment to family life and domestic problems that may develop. It is often manifested in addictions, often alcohol, but also use of drugs. Since there is zero tolerance for drug use in the military, soldiers with addiction are often released without the proper follow up and in severe cases end up homeless or commit suicide. Thus it seems prudent that the military determine the root causes of an addiction, before ruthlessly releasing a soldier.
While the Canadian military claims that it does everything to prevent suicides and detect PTSD, when a soldier falls through the cracks, all the mental health services and mental health professionals available cannot help.
Under the “universal service” clause, every soldier in the Canadian Forces has to be available and fit for deployment. This policy often results in the release of soldiers, who have relied on the military for their and their family’s livelihood. This policy alone can result in a soldier not stepping forward and seeking help.
On Thursday evening, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson added to the the controversy. During a discussion at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., on Thursday night, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson described the suicides as “very troubling.”
But while Lawson said removing the stigma around mental health problems and injuries is essential, “actually stigmatizing the act of suicide is probably a very good thing in our society.”
“And our experts are very concerned about the fact that in a way, as Canadians and as leaders, we’ve put our arms around those who are suffering from mental health, (but) that we may have brought a slight honour to the act of suicide.
“So we’re very concerned about, as we rally around our troops, what we may be doing to this impression of suicide.”
Some mental health experts seem to agree with General Lawson stating that there is compelling evidence that suicide contagion exists and thus society has to be careful how it talks about suicide. It is also the reason that the media often does not report suicides.
On the other hand, we can’t put our head in the sand. The issue of suicide prevention needs to be talked about, but it has to be done in a responsible way. Often suicides are used as political football, fueling anger among Veterans. This is particularly prevalent when used by opposition politicians, as the country moves toward an election in 2015.
Tim Laidler, executive director of the Veterans Transition Network, which helps Canadian Forces personnel transition into civilian life, said there is a legitimate need to discuss why military members are killing themselves and what more can be done to help.
There is also a need for more information about the issue, he said, as the government has no handle on how many veterans or reservists have committed suicide.
“But there has been a lot of politicization of the issue, and that’s when I think it starts to get a little bit dodgy,” Laidler said. “When people try to use the soldiers to have a political advantage, or to say the government isn’t doing enough, and trying to ramp up the anger.”
More can and should be done to prevent these suicides and provide first line intervention on mental health issues, particularly PTSD. It requires that those closest to the military member to be informed to recognize changes in a soldier. The fear and stigma of release has to be be removed to permit a soldier to come forward. A vast support network, that includes immediate friends and family along with military supervisors and health professionals is required to assist these soldiers. Politicizing the issue is certainly not helpful.