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Prince Harry speaks at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Mental Health Research conference in Toronto on Sept. 25, 2017.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prince Harry, a veteran of two Afghanistan tours, said he is heartened that the public has embraced the Invictus Games, a competition he started three years ago for ill and injured soldiers.

Being held in Canada for the first time, the Games have brought together 550 athletes from 17 countries to compete in a week of competition in Toronto. About 90 Canadian military personnel and veterans are participating.

Read also: Invictus Games: A soldier's path from golf course to an Afghan battlefield and back again

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Investigation reveals 54 Canadian soldiers died by suicide after war in Afghanistan

"For the competitors, we know that the journey to the Invictus Games is often not an easy one," Prince Harry told several hundred people gathered for the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research conference, which coincides with the Games. The veterans' journey, he said, comes after months and years of fighting to get better.

"Fighting to find a purpose. Fighting to reconnect with family. Fighting to leave the house. And in some cases, fighting to stay alive," the Prince said on Monday. "Sport, of course, is not the only answer, but it is a deeply powerful tool."

Prince Harry, 33, served in the British Army for a decade. During his second Afghanistan deployment in 2012, the army captain was a co-pilot gunner on an Apache attack helicopter in southern Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold.

When he announced in 2015 that he was leaving the military, Prince Harry said "the experiences I have had over the last 10 years will stay with me for the rest of my life."

Prince Harry started Invictus after attending the Paralympic-style U.S. Warrior Games in Colorado and witnessing the positive impact that the event had on competitors and their families.

Interviews with 40 Invictus athletes completed for a new study show the competition has had a transformative effect. The athletes, who are coping with a range of illnesses and injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic brain injury, amputation and spinal-cord or nerve damage, told researchers from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia that training for the Games has been pivotal to their ongoing recovery. In one case, an athlete said preparing for Invictus stopped him from taking his own life.

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Deaths by suicide have increased in recent years in the Canadian Army, which shouldered the bulk of Canada's combat operations during the international Afghanistan mission. The army suicide rate among regular Canadian Armed Forces males was 33.32 per 100,000 from 2002 to 2015, nearly 2.6 times higher than non-army branches, such as the navy and air force.

An ongoing Globe and Mail investigation has found that more than 70 Canadian military members and vets who deployed on the Afghanistan mission have killed themselves after returning home. During the operation, which ended in 2014, 158 soldiers lost their lives, including six who died by suicide.

Several factors are often involved in deaths by suicide, such as alcohol abuse, relationship breakdowns, financial troubles and mental illness. The Globe's profiles of 31 Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide, which were published last fall, revealed that many of the soldiers were dealing with PTSD or other mental illnesses connected to their experiences during the deployment. Some were struggling to get consistent medical care and social support, their families told The Globe.

National Defence and Veterans Affairs will soon release a new joint suicide-prevention strategy. Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said on Friday the strategy will focus on building resilience in military members and veterans, reducing suicide risk and increasing support for those who are in a mental-health crisis and thinking about ending their lives.

"Tragically, the taking of one's own life has become all too frequent," he told a group of senior military health officials gathered for the 2017 Warrior Care in the 21st Century symposium in Toronto. "We've done a remarkably good job at professionalizing recruitment and training while they're in service. We have to do as good of a job now preparing them for civilian life coming out."

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