Skip to main content

National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson speaks in Question Period in the House of Commons on Dec. 5, 2013.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

The federal Defence Minister says military personnel who seek help for a mental illness including post-traumatic stress disorder do not need to fear losing their careers and their livelihoods.

As the military comes to grips with the suicides of four soldiers in less than two weeks, advocates for members of the armed forces say stepping forward to admit psychological distress often leads to a discharge. The military has a policy that says all soldiers, sailors and airmen must be fit enough to deploy to a war zone.

But Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told Parliament on Thursday it is "completely false" that soldiers will lose their their jobs and their pensions by getting treatment for mental problems. Mr. Nicholson urged the New Democrat MP who raised the matter in the daily Question Period "not to alarm those individuals who are thinking of coming forward."

Veterans, on the other hand, say there is simply no protection offered to military personnel who take that step.

"They can't come forward and they can't tell the doctors because, as soon as they tell the doctors, the doctors have to report to their senior officers," Mike Cole, a former Air Force pilot who suffers from PTSD, told a news conference on Thursday. The senior officers then say the person with the mental illness is "no longer fit for service, see you later," Capt. Cole said.

Captain Wayne Johnston, a 41-year veteran of the military who was the repatriation officer for soldiers who died in Afghanistan, told The Globe and Mail that, "once you stick your hand up for mental health, I don't know the numbers, but in most cases you are going to get released."

That threat of losing both salary and dignity while coping with a mental illness lies behind many of the decisions made by soldiers to end their own lives, Capt. Johnston said.

The military conducts an inquiry to probe the cause of every soldier's suicide. But 70 of those inquiries dating back to 2008 remain incomplete.

Jamie Robertson, a spokesman for the military ombudsman, said Thursday that many of the inquiries are finished but there have been significant delays in obtaining final sign-offs from senior commanders. Those problems will be the subject of a report by the ombudsman in February. "The process is taking far too long and families aren't getting closure in a timely manner," Mr. Robertson said.

Some former soldiers believe the Department of National Defence is not counting a death as a suicide until an inquiry had been completed. Defence officials said Thursday that is not true and that all suicides are included in the statistics posted on its website, whether there has been an inquiry or not.

The Defence website has said 74 of its members killed themselves in the five years between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2012. But on Thursday night, the Defence Department raised those numbers to agree with what Mr. Nicholson told CTV's Question Period on Sunday. The minister said that there were 106 military suicides from 2008 to the end of November of this year.

Capt. Johnston also pointed out that the Canadian military does not keep accurate counts of the suicides of reservists who comprised 25 to 30 per cent of the armed forces deployed to Afghanistan. "Did we also have Class A reservists commit suicide? Hell yes," he said.

The department's statistics do not include soldiers who kill themselves after being discharged, Capt. Johnston said. "So the numbers are a bit disingenuous," he said.

Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, said accuracy is important. That is true to keep the public informed, he said, and "also to understand how serious an issue it is."

With a report from Erin Anderssen