George Curtis was a man born to help.
The Prince Edward Island veteran regularly went out of his way to visit ill friends in need of a boost, would quietly pick up a stranger’s restaurant tab as a kindness and to the exasperation of his former wife, was known to re-home spiders found inside rather than squish them.
Privately, though, Mr. Curtis was under a mental siege, plagued with the nightmares, anxiety, hypervigilance and suicidal ideations that were symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the weekend, it was discovered that the 47-year-old father ended his fight – and what he told friends was a too-long wait for residential treatment – when he died by suicide.
Just one day after discovering Mr. Curtis, who died at his remote camp on PEI, his family and closest friends are speaking out about his suicide and what they argue is a need to help other veterans struggling with PTSD and suicidal thoughts by publicly acknowledging when a soldier takes his or her own life.
“This shouldn’t be a hidden issue,” said Dennis MacKenzie, a veteran with PTSD in PEI who counted Mr. Curtis as one of his closest friends. Last month, through the non-profit group Brave and Broken, Mr. MacKenzie launched a social media campaign titled “If I Take My Life,“ which is aimed at creating awareness of the suicide “epidemic plaguing our veterans.”
“Veterans are killing themselves and no one is talking about it,” Mr. MacKenzie says in the campaign’s inaugural video. “If I take my life, please talk about it,” an alternating chorus of veterans asks viewers. “Out of respect for the families, we’re asked not to,” they say, adding: “Out of respect for those still suffering, we have to.”
There is no public list of military members or veterans who have taken their own lives. Telling stories of suicide is a long-held taboo in society and journalism. But social media has begun to shift the conversation and increasingly, mainstream media are reporting newsworthy deaths. That includes The Globe and Mail, which argued that “by not talking about and writing about military suicides, we risk failing to understand how we can better help vulnerable soldiers and veterans” when it launched The Unremembered, a recent investigation into post-Afghanistan suicides.
Veterans who take their own lives and do not have their stories told are dishonoured because they simply and quietly just disappear, argues Mr. MacKenzie, who said his fallen friend recently made clear he supports the project.
“Wow. I’m so close to this issue,” Mr. Curtis texted Mr. MacKenzie after watching the video. The pair met years ago while working to launch the PEI location of Marijuana For Trauma (MFT). Launched in New Brunswick by two veterans with PTSD, the now-national chain aims to connect veterans with PTSD to medicinal cannabis.
As with many veterans with PTSD, Mr. Curtis turned to cannabis to help manage the symptoms of PTSD. He struggled with those symptoms for more than a decade, first as a soldier and later as a paramedic, said his former wife Michelle Allain. The pair recently separated.
Through tears, Ms. Allain said in an interview that the only reason she was speaking about Mr. Curtis “is because I know that if this could help someone, he would want me to do it.
“He was the most gentle man you would know. He was big-hearted. He would fight for the underdog. And it was very important to him for people to understand PTSD and mental illness,” Ms. Allain said. “People need to know there is not enough help in our system for people that suffer from it.”
Last fall, the Canadian military and government announced a sweeping new mental-health strategy with a target of zero suicides. “We have to do everything we can to prevent every suicide,” General Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said at the time.
It is not known exactly how many veterans have died by suicide since the announcement. Mr. Curtis’s death brings the number to at least two. Marc Poulin, a veteran with PTSD, killed himself and his partner in Nova Scotia this spring.
While many factors are involved in deaths by suicide, families often report feeling that government programs for supporting ill veterans failed their loved ones.
Ms. Allain, Mr. Curtis’s former wife, said the veteran had recently moved back to PEI after a stint in British Columbia and told her he was having trouble accessing residential treatment because he did not have a doctor on the island. “They wouldn’t take him. That’s what he told me,” Ms. Allain said.