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A government expert group that examined a dozen veterans' suicides urged Canada to routinely review such deaths to learn lessons that might help prevent future tragedies – a five-year-old call to action that has yet to be fully adopted.
The 2010 recommendation is mentioned amid more than 2,000 pages of Veterans Affairs records obtained through the Access to Information Act. The expert group found that a psychiatric disorder was present in all 12 suicide cases. One vet died just three months after being medically released from the military; another died by suicide 16 years after leaving the Canadian Forces.
All were part of the Veterans Affairs rehabilitation program, which is designed to aid their health and help them adjust to life outside the military. Yet nearly all felt isolated, hopeless or a burden, reveals a summary of the review obtained under the access legislation.
Despite these findings and the group's recommendation – made as Canada was entrenched in the Afghanistan war – another review of suicide cases was not done until February, 2014. And the timing of further examinations is uncertain, even though the department is clearly aware of why these probes matter. "Reviews of suicides are recommended because suicide prevention is very complex and continuous learning by organizations helps to prevent suicides," states a Veterans Affairs research brief prepared in January, 2014.
The lack of regular investigations is part of Canada's dearth of information on veterans' suicides. While the Canadian Forces keeps track of suicides of active-duty members, conducting medical reviews and military boards of inquiries into each death, Veterans Affairs doesn't know how many former soldiers, sailors and air force personnel are taking their lives each year.
The need for tracking and regular reviews could become more pressing as an increasing number of soldiers who served in the 13-year Afghanistan war are discharged from the military. A Globe and Mail investigation found that at least 54 soldiers and vets have killed themselves after serving in the mission – more than one-third of the number of Canadian troops who died in the war itself. On Monday, the military provided The Globe with an updated suicide count, which brings the number to at least 59.
Six of those deaths were of veterans who hadn't been out of the military for very long. Retired sergeant Ron Anderson, for instance, was medically released from the Forces about a year before his suicide in February, 2014. The Globe identified the vet cases by scouring more than a decade's worth of military-related obituaries and confirming that their deaths were in fact suicides through interviews with families and military members. There may be more.
Canadian Veterans Advocacy founder Michael Blais said the government's lack of suicide monitoring is "disturbing."
"Resources are based on statistical evidence and, because of that, I fear that we're not committing sufficient resources to deal with the true threat that we confront today," Mr. Blais said. "We don't truly know the consequences of the Afghanistan war."
Veterans Affairs has been criticized for not committing enough money to support programs and hiring staff as the number of mentally ill vets has climbed. Indeed, since 2006 more than $1.1-billion in authorized spending at the department has gone unused.
Meanwhile, mental-health disability claims have soared. At the end of March, 2015, there were 14,824 still-serving military members and veterans receiving disability benefits from Veterans Affairs for a mental-health illness, according to figures provided by the department. That's nearly double the number in March, 2009. About 70 per cent of the mental-health claims in both years were for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disability figures do not include veterans of the Korean or the Second World Wars.
Veterans Affairs has a suicide-prevention program, but the department doesn't serve all vets, only those who receive disability benefits and other approved services. About 19 per cent of Canada's estimated 685,000 vets are clients of Veterans Affairs. Still, the department does receive notifications of some vet suicides through pension claims.
According to a landmark study released in 2011, former members make up the lion's share of military suicides in Canada. The Statistics Canada study, done with Veterans Affairs and National Defence, revealed that 78 per cent of 934 military suicides documented from 1972 to the end of 2006 involved veterans. The analysis offered the first – and so far only – look at vet suicides in Canada, capturing both Veterans Affairs clients and other former military members. It showed ex-members have a higher prevalence of suicide than those still in the Forces.
Researchers found that male veterans were 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Canadian men of the same age – an increased risk that translated into 231 more vet deaths than expected. The study did not look at deployment history, medical condition, branch of service or military role, but it did find, among other things, that the risk of suicide was higher in those who had been medically released from the Forces.
Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Janice Summerby said work is under way to repeat the study. The methodology was still being developed last month, and a report is expected in 2017.
In its 2014 review of suicide cases, the department examined 30 deaths that occurred from the 1960s to the end of 2013. Mental illness was present in 20 cases, while five had served overseas, although the location of their deployment wasn't examined, Ms. Summerby said.
Retired U.S. army colonel Carl Castro, whose research at the University of Southern California include veterans' suicides and PTSD, urged Canada to improve its suicide monitoring. He contended veterans' suicides should be tracked annually, not every five or 10 years.
"If you don't assess every year, you'll never close" the statistical black hole, he said. "At some point, you've got to decide it is or isn't important. It sounds like Canada has decided it's not important."
Are you a military family with a similar story? Email Renata D'Aliesio at firstname.lastname@example.org as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.