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The father of a Royal Military College student who took his own life says the family is upset that Canada’s top general rejected a board of inquiry’s finding that stigma around seeking mental-health support was a contributing factor in the death.

Richard Kelertas says Gen. Jonathan Vance’s response suggests there is a “disconnect” between senior officers and other Forces members, including RMC students, who remain fearful of what could happen to their careers if they ask for help.

“I’m concerned that there isn’t enough of an alarm bell sounding on the stigma issue,” Kelertas said. “And everyone that we know, and all the other cadets that we know, they all say of course there is stigma.”

The board of inquiry was launched in May 2016 following the deaths of Kelertas’s son Harrison as well as fellow officer cadet Brett Cameron, whose bodies were found within weeks of each other on the campus of the 142-year-old military college.

The internal investigation was later expanded to also probe the death of Matthew Sullivan, who died shortly after returning home to Saint John, N.B., following his discharge from the prestigious institution in August 2016.

A censored version of the board’s final report was publicly released last week and confirmed that the three students all died by suicide in 2016, though most other details specific to their cases were blacked out.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Kelertas said the version provided to his family specifically identified stigma as a key factor in what happened to Harrison, who died only weeks before he was scheduled to graduate from RMC.

“The board found that the stigma associated with seeking medical help for mental-health related concerns was a service-related contributing factor,” Kelertas said. “And this was rejected by the chief of defence staff.

“What Vance said was, (military) policies and programs actively encouraged cadets to seek mental-health care and mental-health care was available without consequence.”

Kelertas said he had agreed not to disclose a copy of the report because it contains personal and third-party information.

Military spokesman Maj. Doug Keirstead would not discuss the inquiry’s findings on Tuesday, but said stigma can exist in any organization and that the military encourages all members to seek help when needed without fear of repercussions.

“The board’s recommendations will contribute to our efforts to better prepare future officers of the Canadian Armed Forces by ensuring officer cadets are aware of the many resources and support networks that are in place to help them,” he added.

“It also emphasizes the importance of an environment where they feel comfortable coming forward to get the help they need, without fear of negative impact to their careers.”

In the public version of its scathing report, which identified many gaps at the college, the board recognized that mental illness is now more understood and that the military has taken action to address and reduce barriers to seeking help among RMC students and others.

Yet it also found that “the stigma associated with seeking help for mental illnesses still affects a significant number of the military population, especially young males between the ages of 18-24,” and that it represents “a major obstacle” in seeking assistance at RMC.

“Changing attitudes toward mental health and suicide prevention may not be sufficient,” the board added. “Changing behaviours may be, in the long term, the desired approach.”

Kelertas questioned why RMC, where students are required to pass not only their academic studies but also meet athletic and bilingualism standards and learn military theory, was missing some of the support and services available at other universities.

The board also highlighted those missing elements, including the lack of an overall suicide-prevention plan and the use of students to perform “suicide watches” on other officer cadets.

Said Kelertas: “You would think that over the years they would recognize the stresses and the strains on the cadets as a result of that and these programs would have been put in place a long time ago.”

Despite his concerns about Vance’s response, Kelertas was cautiously optimistic that the many problems identified in the board’s report will be addressed and that his son won’t have died in vain.

At the same time, however, he said the family planned to keep watch to make sure the promised fixes are implemented – and that they would sound the alarm if the military started to drag its feet, as he was told has happened in the past.

“You can’t keep on going back and saying: ‘Who was at fault’ or ’They were at fault’ or whatever, but let’s not make the same mistakes again. Let’s move forward,” he said.

“What I’m going to do personally, my family and I, we’re going to keep them accountable. We’re not letting this go. And I’m going to continue to find out how many of these recommendations are actually being implemented at the college.”

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