Canadian soldiers face many challenges on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but one of the most difficult often does not surface until after they return home: operational stress injuries that inflict invisible but devastating psychological wounds. In the past, the military did little to protect or rehabilitate these soldiers, leaving them to languish, ostracized and isolated. There is hope that is changing.
On Thursday, after a House of Commons defence committee report that revealed significant gaps in the military mental-health system, General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of the Defence Staff, announced a mental-health awareness campaign, as part of a new strategy to tackle operational stress injuries in the military. The campaign also features two non-clinical mental health programs, including a speakers series and peer counselling.
The announcement is significant, because it breaks the military's silence on a sensitive subject. For people in the profession of arms, toughness is a cultural ethos. Soldiers don't like to admit to physical pain, let alone anything as invisible and intangible as psychological anguish. Those in uniform who suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome have injuries as real as any gunshot wound, yet the stigma around psychological injuries is still so painful and career-limiting for many that they will confide behind closed doors they would prefer to have been shot.
The Canadian Forces have made progress since they arrived in Kandahar a few years ago. They are struggling to cope with a wave of young Afghanistan vets who have served in an overtasked and under-strength military. The CF are learning; joint personnel support units, to help those suffering from PTSD, have been established across the country; decompression time in Cyprus is now built in to tours of duty; Independent military-family resource centres offer a variety of programs to family members. But progress is slow, waiting lists are long, and stigma is still very real.
The military still faces significant hurdles. Cultural change does not occur overnight. In spite of programs to increase understanding of PTSD, many soldiers maintain it is career suicide to admit to an operational stress injury. As long as that view remains, OSIs, which emerge primarily through self-reporting, will remain an insidious problem.
It is easy for civilians to judge the military harshly for failing to remedy this very serious problem more completely or quickly, but the reality is that Bay Street and Main street are hardly in a position to crow about their own compassionate treatment of the mentally ill.
The military deserve the very best in care; they risk their mental health just as much their physical health in the service of the nation. Stigma and skewed perceptions about OSIs must be overcome, because the cost of failing to do so is too high, with casualties on the home front among Canadian soldiers and their families.