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Roméo Dallaire on Parliament Hill on May 28, 2014.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire has urged the military to get more involved with the families of its work force, saying they should not be treated as an "add-on."

Mr. Dallaire, who is also a former senator, has been public about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. He said on Tuesday that families are essential to ensuring the health of the Canadian Armed Forces and their people.

"We are a long way from considering that the family is not just a support of those who served and a support for those who are injured," he told the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research conference, which was being held in Toronto during the Invictus Games for ill and injured soldiers and veterans. "The families are not support. Families are not an add-on. They're integral to the operational capability of the Forces and their care must reach that same level."

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Mr. Dallaire, who led an understaffed United Nations peacekeeping team in Rwanda in 1994 during one of the worst genocides of modern times, also renewed his concerns about the number of suicides among the country's military members and veterans, some of whom served in conflicts such as the Afghanistan War. Greater suicide-prevention efforts are needed, he said.

"Unless we treat mental health with the same sense of urgency as we treat a dangling arm on someone who has just been shot at, we will continue to take the fatal casualties," he said of deaths by suicide.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said the federal government recognizes that military work creates "unique stressors" on soldiers and their families during service and afterward. Support for families has increased in recent years, and a pilot project offering on-base services to medically released vets and their families will expand in April, 2018.

National Defence and Veterans Affairs will also soon make public a joint suicide-prevention strategy.

"Suicide is taking far too many of our service members and our veterans," Mr. O'Regan, who is also the Associate Defence Minister, told the conference earlier on Tuesday. "While we may not fully prevent these events, this strategy will help military members and veterans build resilience, reduce the risk of suicidality and offer support when they need it."

Mr. O'Regan said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) remains a serious mental-health issue for many vets. As of the end of March, 17,623 were receiving a disability benefit from Veterans Affairs because they had been diagnosed with PTSD related to their military work.

Mr. Dallaire urged soldiers and vets who are dealing with PTSD and other mental illnesses to speak out about their therapy so that others seek help.

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"Therapy is crucial to mastering this situation and to be able to live with it in a reasonable way," he said.

He added that peer support is vital and called for more research to understand what medications are effective in treating PTSD.

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