Seventeen serving military members took their lives last year, including six who had taken part in the Afghanistan war – raising the number of soldiers and veterans who have died by suicide after returning from the mission to 62.
The latest Canadian Forces data, some of which are expected to be posted on National Defence’s website this week, also increase the 2014 suicide count for serving members to 21 from 19, which is among the highest single-year tallies in the past 15 years. Nearly half had deployed on the Afghanistan mission.
This, however, is not the whole picture, because veterans’ suicides are not regularly tracked and the numbers don’t fully capture reservists, who represented about a quarter of the more than 40,000 Canadian troops sent to the volatile country after the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
A Globe and Mail investigation published in October revealed that at least 54 military members and veterans who served in Afghanistan had taken their lives after their tour. The Canadian Forces released an update days after The Globe series began running that increased the suicide count to 59.
With the new military data, and two additional veteran suicides in December that have been confirmed by The Globe, the tragic toll has now reached at least 62 – 54 members who were still with the military when they died by suicide, and eight who killed themselves after their release from the Forces. Five of those occurred last year, The Globe investigation has found. The other three happened in 2014.
There have likely been more over the years. Although Canada pulled its troops out of the war-scarred country in 2014, the gruelling mission – which was Canada’s longest military operation – has had lasting effects on some soldiers, fuelling mental illness and addiction, and tearing apart many livelihoods and families.
While the Afghanistan deployment was a factor in some of the 62 suicides, it is not clear in how many. During the 13-year NATO-led combat operation, which began in 2001 and wrapped up in 2014, 158 Canadian military members perished on the mission, including six who died by suicide in theatre.
The mounting toll of the Afghanistan war has triggered deep concern among political and military leaders. In November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed the ministers of National Defence and Veterans Affairs to work together on a suicide-prevention strategy. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also ordered the military’s top commander to make suicide prevention a priority and to examine why an increased number of army members have taken their lives in recent years. The army shouldered the brunt of combat in Afghanistan.
“We were always worried about the impact of the deployment on the army, because they were, by and large, the people who were in the most dangerous environments,” said Colonel Andrew Downes, director of mental health with the Canadian Forces health-services group.
Col. Downes said the health-services group is planning to re-examine responses to mental-health surveys from army members in 2013 – separating their data from the navy and air force to determine whether they face greater barriers to care. An expert panel is also being assembled to review the military’s mental-health programs and suicide-prevention activities. The last expert review, which included representatives of the Forces and Veterans Affairs and external consultants, was done in 2009.
The mental-health director noted that both in the military and civilian world, a lot of people who are struggling with mental illness don’t reach out to medical staff. He said the stigma of mental disorder is a barrier, as is concern that seeking help will negatively affect one’s career. In the Forces, the military is both employer and health-care provider.
We “really want to get the message down to all levels of the organization that it’s okay to have mental-health problems, and care is available and they will be supported through their illness,” Col. Downes said.
Retired corporal Scott Casey and other veterans’ advocates will be closely monitoring efforts to bolster suicide prevention and to begin tracking veterans’ suicides. Veterans Affairs is planning to annually report on suicides of former military members starting in late 2017. The move will disclose, for the first time, how many vets are taking their lives each year in Canada.
“It’s a significant” step, said Mr. Casey, who is president of Military Minds, an organization that connects veterans with programs and services. “It is something that needs to be done. It should have been done a long time ago.”
With a report from Les Perreaux
Are you a member of a military family with a similar story? E-mail Renata D’Aliesio at firstname.lastname@example.org as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story's sub-headline incorrectly said half of the 62 soldiers and veterans who have taken their own lives served in Afghanistan. This is the corrected versionReport Typo/Error