An expert group advising Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr on mental health is focusing on suicide prevention at a meeting this week – a long overdue step, say some vet advocates who sit on the committee.
It's the first time an entire day-long meeting of the group, which includes retired soldiers and mental-health specialists, will be dedicated to the issue of suicide. In the fall, several veterans on the committee vented frustration with the advisory group's direction and the government's pace of action on the growing suicide problem, after a continuing Globe and Mail investigation revealed that at least 70 soldiers and vets who served on the Afghanistan mission have taken their own lives after returning to Canada.
The toll has since climbed and includes the death of 33-year-old Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond, who shot his wife, Shanna Desmond, 31, their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda Desmond, 52, before killing himself on Jan. 3.
The Canadian Forces, which conducts inquiries in the suicides of military members to probe what went wrong before their deaths and what improvements in policies and care might be needed, has yet to announce whether it will examine how it handled Mr. Desmond's illness and medical treatment. Mr. Desmond was released from the military in July, 2015; his family says he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mike Blais, the founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy group and a member of the Minister's advisory committee, believes greater government and military focus is needed on reducing suicides of serving and former military members.
Some of us "have been fighting since the advisory group was struck to make suicide the top priority," he said. "There should be no compromise when we're talking suicide prevention. There should only be 100-per-cent effort to alleviate this curse."
The prevalence of suicide has increased in recent years in the army, which shouldered the bulk of Canada's combat operations during the Afghanistan mission. Military statistics show that the crude suicide rate among regular force males in the army was 33.32 per 100,000 from 2002 to 2015, nearly 2.6 times that of the non-army.
The picture is less clear among veterans. Suicides of former soldiers are not regularly tracked in Canada, but a new system is being developed and will report for the first time at the end of this year. The country's only comprehensive look at veteran suicides revealed that 78 per cent of 934 military suicides documented from 1972 to 2006 involved veterans.
Mr. Blais is hopeful that government promises to improve support for ailing veterans will turn into action this year. The mental-health advisory group is meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday, the same day that the federal budget will be unveiled.
The Canadian Press reported on Friday that the government will commit in the budget to reintroduce the option of lifetime pensions for disabled veterans by the end of the year. Canada previously provided lifelong pensions to those hurt in the line of duty, but they were abolished in 2006 and replaced by a system centred on a lump-sum payments that many veterans complain offers less financial support over all.
Neither co-chair of the mental-health advisory group was available to speak to The Globe before the meeting. Retired Major-General Glynne Hines, a co-chair who spoke to the newspaper in the fall, said "members of the advisory group committed to confidentiality in all our discussions until we have agreement on key messages." The other co-chair is Joel Fillion, director of mental health for Veterans Affairs.
Afghanistan veteran Aaron Bedard, a member of the advisory committee, said he's grown frustrated by what he views as a lack of urgency in tackling military suicides and mental-health disorders. "I don't have a lot of faith in this process. I feel like with these advisory groups, we're being put into a holding pattern. We're like mushrooms, being kept in the dark," he said.
Mr. Bedard has organized a town hall on veterans' issues, which will take place at City Hall in Ottawa after the group's meeting on Wednesday. A handful of federal politicians are expected to attend, along with military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, Mr. Bedard noted.
Last year, the Forces asked a panel of mental-health specialists to examine the military's mental-health programs and suicide-prevention efforts. A report on its findings will soon be released. The last expert review was done in 2009 and led to 59 recommendations.