The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among members of the Canadian Forces has nearly doubled since 2002, according to a new survey of thousands of soldiers that underscores the mental-health challenge this country and its military personnel face after a decade of bloodshed in Afghanistan.
The initial results of the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey 2013, released Monday, found that 5.3 per cent of soldiers reported experiencing PTSD in the 12 months prior to the survey, up from 2.8 per cent 11 years earlier when Statistics Canada last asked soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen about their mental health.
The new figures represent the first findings from approximately 6,700 two-hour, face-to-face interviews with full-time members of the Canadian Forces, and they come after a rash of returning soldiers' suicides raised questions about the Canadian military's ability to cope with the psychological fallout of the Afghanistan mission.
"There's no question that the issue of PTSD and depression in the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces is a significant issue," said Chris Linford, a 54-year-old retired lieutenant colonel who battled PTSD after tours of duty in Rwanda and Afghanistan.
The increase in PTSD rates is "not that surprising after 10 years of being involved in a very heavy combat mission," said Colonel Rakesh Jetly, a senior psychiatrist and mental-health adviser to the Canadian Forces surgeon-general.
The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among full-time members of the Canadian Forces has nearly doubled since 2002, according to a new Statistics Canada report. Read the full story.
Although Canadian soldiers saw action in places such as Rwanda, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia in the years before the Afghan deployment began, "those didn't compare to the intensity and frequency of the combat our soldiers have seen [in Afghanistan]," he added.
The initial results of the survey reflect the mental-illness rates among full-time members of the Canadian Forces, not just those who served in Afghanistan, according to Vincent Dale, the assistant director of the special surveys division of Statistics Canada, which conducted the survey in partnership with the Department of National Defence.
A more detailed analysis of the survey, which was conducted from April to August of last year, is expected in the fall.
The 2013 survey asked soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen whether they had experienced one of the following six conditions in the past year: Depression, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.
A total of 16.5 per cent of soldiers reported experiencing at least one. Of those conditions, three were examined in the same way in the 2002 survey. (The official definitions of the others changed in the interim, making an apples-to-apples comparison difficult, Mr. Dale said.)
Along with PTSD, rates of panic disorder among soldiers rose from 2 per cent in 2002 to 3.4 per cent in 2013.
However, the mental-health problem that affects the largest percentage of soldiers – depression – remained unchanged between 2002 and 2013. In both years, the survey found 8 per cent of soldiers reported experiencing depression in the past 12 months.
The federal government has been adamant it is doing everything it can to support soldiers with mental-health issues, but some returning soldiers have expressed fears in the past that they will be medically discharged from the military if they seek help for their problems.
Mr. Linford was medically released in February, about two years earlier than he would have retired by choice.
However, he praised the mental-health services he received from the Canadian Forces for his PTSD a decade after serving in Rwanda and again after a seven-month tour in Afghanistan in 2009-10.
Col. Jetly said Canadian Forces brass are keenly aware of the prevalence of PTSD in their ranks, and better prepared now than ever to treat suffering soldiers.
"We started renewal of the mental-health [service] long before conflict in Afghanistan really picked up in 2006. So I do believe we're prepared," he said.