This article is part of The Unremembered, a Globe and Mail investigation into soldiers and veterans who died by suicide after deployment during the Afghanistan mission.
In a speech before military brass, mental-health specialists and veterans’ advocates, one of Canada’s top military leaders signalled that the Canadian Forces are prepared to aggressively tackle mounting suicides among soldiers to prevent further lives lost.
Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross, chief of military personnel, said the Forces have a moral obligation to care for their more than 60,000 soldiers, sailors and air-force personnel and must to do better in the wake of increased suicides in recent years.
“This is alarming, because rates of suicides among our members have historically been lower than those of the Canadian population,” Lt.-Gen. Whitecross told an audience of several hundred gathered for a health-research forum in Vancouver on Tuesday. “We need to better understand why this is occurring. And more importantly we must find a strategy to reverse this trend.”
Deaths by suicide have risen significantly in the Canadian army, which shouldered much of the combat operations in Afghanistan. A continuing Globe and Mail investigation has found that at least 71 service members and veterans have taken their lives after returning from the Afghanistan mission. Canada lost 158 soldiers on the deployment, including six who took their own lives in theatre. It was this country’s longest military operation.
A veteran of tours in Germany, Bosnia and Afghanistan, Lt.-Gen. Whitecross’s frank talk is a stark departure from repeated assurances over the years that the military does not have a suicide problem. Only this past fall did the Canadian Forces acknowledge that deployment may be emerging as a risk factor for suicide.
Earlier this month, The Globe published 31 accounts of soldiers and airmen who killed themselves after their Afghanistan tours. Their stories, told by family members and close friends, provide the most comprehensive public record of the nation’s Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide. They also expose critical gaps in the military’s health system and in government policies intended to help soldiers and vets coping with mental-health issues. Fourteen of the fallen had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, while a coroner’s inquiry identified the illness in one other case. In another 10 cases, families saw signs of PTSD but the illness wasn’t diagnosed.
Twenty-two received mental-health treatment after their deployment, but many families were critical of the quality of care their loved ones received. Twelve took their lives within two years of returning from their last Afghanistan tour, raising questions about the medical evaluations done after their deployments and the mental-health support provided.
After The Globe’s initial suicide investigation last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed the ministers of Defence and Veterans Affairs to work together on a suicide-prevention strategy. An expert panel, whose members have not been disclosed, is examining the military’s mental-health programs and suicide-prevention efforts. Its recommendations will help shape the strategy, which is not expected until late next year. The last review was done in 2009.
“We are looking at health and wellness in a much more comprehensive way than we have ever done before,” Lt.-Gen. Whitecross said. “We know that a solid mental-health program cannot be based on medicine alone. And we know that mental health is everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s challenge to face.”
Retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, a speaker at the four-day forum organized by the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, welcomed Lt.-Gen. Whitecross’s frankness on suicides and said acknowledgment of the problem is long overdue.
The former Liberal senator, who himself has struggled with suicidal thoughts, contends the Forces were not properly prepared for the influx of ill and wounded soldiers from the Afghanistan mission. He has been urging commanders to get more involved in the welfare of their charges and in preventing suicides.
“Day-to-day supervision and monitoring has not been where it should be and that’s why people are falling off the grid,” Mr. Dallaire said.
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr vowed that the new suicide-prevention strategy will be “second to none” and incorporate best practices from Canada and around the world.
Afghanistan war veteran Aaron Bedard, who is a member of Mr. Hehr’s mental-health advisory board, said the rise in suicides underscores broader mental-health troubles among current and former soldiers: Too many are not getting the help they need and are struggling in isolation.
“The action needs to start happening. Studies and research have been done,” said Mr. Bedard, a former combat engineer who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “They like to say they’re closing the seam, filling the gap. Well, the gap is us. We’re people.”
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