Nearly half of Canadian soldiers who took their own lives last year were coping with the suicide of a friend, spouse or relative, a new military report shows, underscoring the vulnerability of those who are struggling with grief.
The emotional strain was one of several noted in the Canadian Armed Forces' latest suicide report, released on Wednesday. Of the 14 men in the regular force who killed themselves last year, six had lost a loved one to suicide. It is unclear whether some of those loved ones were fellow soldiers.
Other major challenges included failing relationships, debt, physical injuries, mental illness and dependence on alcohol or drugs. Two of the 14 were being released from the military when they ended their lives.
Colonel Rakesh Jetly, a senior psychiatrist with the Forces, said a suicide in the military can deepen desperation in other vulnerable soldiers. A family history of suicide is also a risk factor.
"It is very important to look at the people that are left in the wake," Col. Jetly said, noting it is crucial to ensure that support is available from supervisors, peers and mental-health specialists. "I don't think the idea of completing suicide starts with the death of someone that you can relate to. But I think if people are already vulnerable, this may be something that tips them over."
Due to privacy concerns, the military's suicide report did not examine the factors that may have contributed to the death of the one woman in the regular force who ended her life in 2016. The suicides of reservists were also excluded because of incomplete data, as were those of veterans, which the military does not track.
The suicides of former soldiers have never been routinely monitored in Canada, but that is about to change. In December, the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to release the first of what are expected to be annual reports on suicides of former soldiers – filling a crucial statistical gap in understanding the risk among released military members.
Canada's only comprehensive look at veterans' suicides showed that former members made up the majority of military suicides in Canada. The Canadian Forces Cancer and Mortality Study, released in 2011, revealed that 78 per cent of 934 military suicides documented from 1972 to 2006 involved veterans. The study did not examine their deployment history.
In 2014, The Globe and Mail began investigating the suicides of soldiers who had deployed on the Afghanistan mission after the military refused to disclose how many had taken their lives.
The newspaper's continuing investigation has revealed that more than 70 Canadian military members and vets who served on that mission have killed themselves. Many had post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health issues related to their military work, along with personal problems.
The military's own statistics show that deployment emerged as a possible risk factor for suicide during the international Afghanistan operation, which Canada left in 2014. The army shouldered the bulk of Canada's combat operations in Afghanistan, and its members have been more vulnerable to suicide.
The Forces' latest suicide report found that, over the past 15 years, the suicide rate among regular force soldiers in the army was 33 per 100,000 – 2.5 times higher than in the navy and air force.
In October, National Defence and Veterans Affairs released a joint suicide-prevention strategy, committing to work together to reduce suicide risk from the day of recruitment to long after a soldier's release. About 10,000 people are discharged from the Forces each year, and one-third have difficulty adjusting to life outside the military, government research has shown.
The strategy commits to several new initiatives, including hiring an expert in suicidal behaviour and providing military medical staff with guidelines for suicide prevention that have been drafted with the Canadian Psychiatric Association.
The Forces also plan to develop a suicide-prevention program tailored for deployment operations and to examine whether military recruits should undergo more rigorous screening for mental-health conditions.
Veterans' advocate Mike Blais hopes the joint strategy will make a difference. He said insufficient support for ill and injured members being discharged from the Forces has been a long-standing issue. The Forces are creating a new transition group to address the problem.
"This is one of the issues that has plagued the military," said Mr. Blais, a member of the Veterans Affairs Minister's mental-health advisory group. "There were significant gaps – whether it was in transition, whether it was at Veterans Affairs, whether it was in our community – that were culminating in suicide, that at least we are making a dedicated effort to close."