Canada’s military is coping with the suicide of another soldier – the fourth in just over a week – and its leadership is trying to persuade others who are struggling with their own mental turmoil that they must seek help.
The body of Master Corporal Sylvain Lelièvre was found Monday at Garrison Valcartier in Quebec. His death follows those last week of Warrant Officer Michael McNeil, Master Corporal William Elliott, and Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast. All are presumed to have taken their own lives and all had completed at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan.
That has prompted military advocates to question whether Canada is doing enough to help this country’s soldiers, sailors and airmen as they deal with the mental aftermath of war.
General Tom Lawson, the Chief of Defence Staff, said in a video message to troops on Wednesday night that they must reach out for help when battling mental issues. "Just as you would expect to be helped by your colleagues on the battlefield if you were physically injured," said Gen. Lawson, "your brothers and sisters in arms are with you in the fight against mental illness."
Watch Gen. Lowson's statement here
Colonel Rakesh Jetly, a senior psychiatrist and mental-health adviser to the Canadian Forces Surgeon-General, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that mental illness, not combat experience, is the greatest single marker for suicide. And the spate of recent tragedies, said Col. Jetly, does not mean the number of soldiers dying by their own hand is on the rise.
It could simply be “tragic coincidence,” he said, or it could be that the media coverage of the first two deaths triggered the others in what he called a “contagion” effect.
The military is now redoubling its efforts to find those members of the Forces who are coping with their own mental issues, said Col. Jetley. “We encourage any people who are struggling with what’s occurred or anything else to come forward for care,” he said. “And as a genuinely caring organization, that’s all we can do.”
And Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons it is the responsibility of every Canadian to encourage those who need support to get help. “We should reach out to them and encourage them to do that,” said Mr. Harper. “Those supports are available and we will make sure, of course, that they continue to be available to those people.”
But Canada’s military ombudsman has said the Department of National Defence is consistently falling short of the target it has set for hiring mental-health workers. And the military may not be telling the whole story about the scope of suicides in the Forces.
Figures posted to the department’s website suggest the suicide rate for soldiers is actually lower than that of all Canadians of comparable age and gender. They also show that the military recorded 74 suicides between 2008 and the beginning of 2013.
But critics say the number of soldier suicides is low only because the department is not keeping proper track.
Kevin Berry, a veteran of Afghanistan who runs an advocacy group for soldiers and veterans called Military Minds, pointed out that the military recently said inquiries into 70 possible suicides, some dating back as far as 2008, had yet to be completed.
Until they are finished, said Mr. Berry, those deaths will not be recorded as suicides and will not be part of the military’s statistics. If that is true, it would mean there were nearly twice as many suicides over the past five years than the Defence Department has acknowledged – an allegation the department did not respond to on Wednesday.
And, as for the military’s call for soldiers who are contemplating suicide to ask for help, Mr. Berry said reaching out can have consequences. “If you put up your hand and say ‘hey, I think I have got PTSD, I am suicidal,’ ” he said, “your career is over.”
That was highlighted by the recent case of Master Corporal Kristian Wolowidnyk, a 28-year-old former combat engineer, who told The Canadian Press he attempted to take his own life in November after having learned he was being discharged because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.
The military demands that its members be available for deployment anywhere at any time and sometimes soldiers who have a debilitating mental illness like PTSD decide suicide is preferable to career suicide, said Mr. Berry.
There is also the so-called warrior culture that some soldiers and veterans say treats mental illness as a weakness, pushing its sufferers into the shadows.
But Col. Jetly said stigmas, while they exist, have been greatly reduced in the past 10 to 15 years. “I am amazed at the openness at which people talk about mental illness, suicide,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a sub-section of society that talks more openly about these issues than the Canadian Forces.”