During recent months at least nine soldier have died as a result of suicide. The deaths put a renewed media focus on mental health by both the media, veterans advocates and opposition parties. The charge is that many soldiers are left to suffer alone and that deaths of reserve force soldiers by suicides are often not included in the suicides reported.
For members of the regular force, universality of service may be a large factor why mental health issues are not reported by those suffering. According to the Toronto Star, as many as 4,500 soldiers leave the military each year, of which 1,700 are released prematurely, due to the universality of service.
At an address hosted by the Conference of Defence Associations, General Lawson said that the military is committed to do more help troops cope with the psychological fallout of their missions. He also said that the military must do more to combat the stigma that hangs over those suffering mental illness.
Critics claim that a large factor for soldiers suffering in silence is as a result of the “universality of service,” which forces soldiers out of the military, sometimes short of an entitlement for a military pension. The current “New Veterans Charter (NVC)” provides soldiers with a lump sum payment, but that is little solace for a soldier that is required to raise a family.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often results in addictions and domestic difficulties. Not only does it affect the soldier, but also his immediate family and friends. Without intervention, often the inevitable happens, which is the break up of relationships, marriage and the distancing of close acquaintances. The soldier feels as if he has been left to suffer alone and this often results in suicide.
While the government and politicians often claim that not all of these suicides are related to PTSD, which they may not be directly, they were more often than not caused as a result of mental illness (PTSD).
General Lawson told the Conference, “We are moving away from silent suffering and we’ve come a long, long way in understanding how to help our members deal with these emotional burdens.
As much I’d like to stand up here today and say there’s no longer a stigma with mental injuries, we know it still does exist. We understand that we have to do more to reduce it. It’s this simple. Mental health injuries need to be considered in the same light as physical injuries. They need professional treatment.”
General Romeo Dallaire, now a Liberal Senator, and former UN Commander during the massacre in Rwanda, said that the military must do more to accommodate soldiers suffering from mental illness. Dallaire suffers from PTSD and has been on the brink of suicide.
Lawson says that the military has a world class mental health system, but that the military is also faced with competing against provincial mental health services, which makes it difficult to hire mental health professionals.
He has shown little interest in moving away from the universality of service principal, which he describes as a fundamental policy. Without the policy you could be peppered with people who are fantastic supporters, well-trained but unable to be deployed.
While the mental health system may be “state of the art and world class,” it is clearly not accomplishing what it sets out to do. Too many soldiers are falling between the cracks and while suicide may be the most visual sign, there are many soldiers that end up homeless and are left to their own devices.
The current lump sum payment under the NVC, prevents many to come forward and seek help. A soldier with a young family can’t possibly support his family without a disability pension. The process to get disability claims approved by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) is cumbersome and often too long, resulting in appeals and appearance in front of a Veterans Review Board (VRB).
Veterans advocate groups and opposition critics have also questioned the composition and membership on these boards and the attitudes of bureaucrats within VAC.
The military can and must do more. Soldiers suffering from PTSD can be accommodated with jobs in training establishments and administrative functions. It requires some will. The Canadian military is currently converting to a peacetime military and like many other federal departments are facing cuts to reduce costs for the government.
Despite cost cutting measures, there is a sacred obligation by the government on behalf of Canadians to look after those they have sent to war. A couple of decades of deployments to the Balkans and Afghanistan have taken their toll on Canada’s military. While the military is reorganizing to a peace time footing, it is time that it accommodates those suffering from PTSD. Both senior and junior commanders must be taught to recognize mental illness and take the necessary steps to provide treatment to those under their command.
General Lawson should take a serious look at the requirement of “universality of service.” Yes they Canadian Forces requires combat ready forces to deploy at a moment’s notice, but there are jobs available within the military to accommodate wounded warriors and those suffering from PTSD. To borrow a Liberal cliche, “We owe it to them.”