Veterans Affairs is taking steps to solve a crucial statistical gap by planning to report on suicides of former military members annually starting in late 2017 – a move that will disclose, for the first time, how many vets are taking their lives each year in Canada.
While the coming change is taking too long for some veterans advocates, it will mark a milestone when implemented: Suicides of released military members have never been regularly tracked in Canada, even after intense combat missions, such as the Second World War and Korea.
In a statement Tuesday, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said that "better tracking and reporting on suicides will help inform our suicide prevention actions." He added that the Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs must continue to address the stigma of mental health and encourage those in need to seek treatment.
"Even one soldier, sailor, airmen or women suffering from the invisible wounds of a mental health injury or committing suicide, is one too many," Mr. Hehr said.
The lack of monitoring was one of several failings highlighted in a Globe and Mail investigation of suicides of soldiers who died after serving in the 13-year Afghanistan war. Through an Access to Information request to National Defence and poring over more than a decade's worth of death notices, The Globe found that at least 48 active-duty soldiers and six veterans had taken their lives after returning from the Afghanistan operation.
The Canadian Forces released an updated number soon after The Globe's investigation was published in late October, raising the suicide count to at least 59 military members and veterans – more than one-third of the number of soldiers who died in the war. There were 158 Canadian military deaths in theatre during the NATO-led combat operation that began in 2001 and ended last year.
Since The Globe's series of stories, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has instructed the ministers of Veterans Affairs and National Defence to make a new suicide-prevention strategy a priority. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, has directed the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, to examine the military's mental-health services and efforts to reduce suicides.
The Globe's series also drew attention to the fact that soldiers who died by suicide after returning from Afghanistan are not recognized in the same way as those who perished in the mission, even when their suicides were deemed attributable to military service. On Remembrance Day, Mr. Hehr, who is also associate minister of national defence, told The Globe he wants to ensure these soldiers and vets are commemorated.
The minister is meeting with representatives of about 30 stakeholder groups in Ottawa on Wednesday. The groups have been asked to provide him with feedback on priorities outlined in Mr. Trudeau's mandate letter.
Gen. Vance applauded the department's plans to improve the monitoring of former military members. In a statement, he said: "I remain committed to ensuring the well-being of all members of the Canadian Armed Forces, whether they are currently serving or veterans."
Veterans advocates have long vented frustration at Canada's lack of suicide tracking of former soldiers. The Canadian Forces keeps tabs on the number of active-duty military members who kill themselves, although its data on reservists are incomplete. A recent report released by the military's surgeon-general revealed that suicides have increased in the army in recent years and the impact of overseas deployment may be emerging as a risk factor.
Canada's only comprehensive look at veterans' suicides showed that former members make up the lion's share of military suicides in Canada. The Canadian Forces Cancer and Mortality Study, released in 2011, was done in partnership with Statistics Canada, National Defence and Veterans Affairs. It revealed that 78 per cent of 934 military suicides documented from 1972 to the end of 2006 involved vets. 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.
David Pedlar, director of research for Veterans Affairs, said the department will be watching to see if vet suicides remain elevated. Officially known as the Veteran Suicide Mortality Study, the examination will involve linking National Defence data – which includes whether a member was released from the military – with Statistics Canada's database of deaths from all provinces and territories. (Names of military members will be removed after the data are linked.)
Dr. Pedlar, who is leading the project that began late last year, said the methodology is still being ironed out. At the moment, it's unclear how far back the first annual suicide report will go. Initial analysis will not include deployment history, Dr. Pedlar said, but both vets who were clients of Veterans Affairs and those who were not will be captured in the study.
"Right now the focus is on being able to get a high-quality suicide number and rate for release to Canadians on an annual basis," Dr. Pedlar said. The study, he added, will give "us trends over time, which is something we don't have right now. … That will be important information for us."
The study has taken a lot of time to put together because it involves two departments and a federal agency, Dr. Pedlar said. Data quality has been an issue, too. The 2011 study that showed an increased suicide risk among veterans relied on National Defence human-resources information that did not accurately capture deployment history, said Elizabeth Rolland-Harris, a senior epidemiologist with the military's directorate of force health protection.
"It was clear that we needed to find better data," she said in an interview at a military health-research conference in Quebec City last week.
Dr. Rolland-Harris is leading the second run of the Canadian Forces Cancer and Mortality Study, which will produce a separate report from the veteran suicide study. She said the new examination will use member pay data, which is more reliable, and include those who enrolled in the military between January, 1976, and mid-2015.
The pay data will allow researchers to look at deployment and occupational history and to include Class C reservists who served full-time at some point during the nearly 40-year period. Class C designations are applied when reservists deploy to missions such as Afghanistan. Reservists were excluded in the 2011 study.
Initial results from the new cancer and mortality study are expected in 2017. Dr. Rolland-Harris said the examination will be one of the most comprehensive military suicide studies ever done in the world.
Still, former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran is frustrated that the public will have to wait another two years to get a clearer picture on how many vets are taking their lives annually. He believes regular tracking of vet suicides could already be happening, if there had been a will to do so.
"This is a demographic that the federal government has complete control over," said Mr. Stogran, a retired colonel. "We got to start demanding transparency and accountability and value for money."