Canada's top soldier says persuading more Canadian Forces members to seek mental-health treatment is a vital element of a new suicide-prevention strategy under development and the military will pay close attention to those who served in the army in Afghanistan.
General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, says he's also undertaking a wide-ranging review of how the military treats soldiers, sailors and air personnel that will span the entire life of a Canadian in the Forces – from recruit to veteran. The goal is to help build resilience in them to better handle personal setbacks.
"I am close to this issue," he said in an interview. "I have lost people to suicide in my life."
"We need to look broadly at how we care for our people, whether it's a workplace free of sexual assault and harassment, effective recruiting and a satisfactory professional life all the way through transition – whether you are injured or not – into your period as a veteran," the defence chief said.
A recent Globe and Mail investigation found at least 54 soldiers and veterans killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan war – more than one-third of the number of Canadian troops who died in the war itself. Last week, the military gave The Globe an updated suicide count, which raised the number to 59.
Gen. Vance said about 50 per cent of those who take their own lives, whether in military or civilian life, are not receiving mental-health care.
"I think one of the most important things we will do in any suicide-prevention strategy is to get that other 50 per cent … into care, and hopefully with them in care that would reduce the suicide rate accordingly."
A Canadian Forces report released this week showed that deployment may be emerging as a risk factor for suicide, particularly trauma and mental illness connected to the Afghanistan war – and that those in the army appear at greater risk of suicide than personnel serving in other commands.
It showed suicides were increasing in the army although, the report noted, suicide rates in the Forces did not significantly increase from 1995 to 2014, and were not statistically higher than those in the Canadian male population.
"I am not happy with anybody committing suicide in the Armed Forces. I get no comfort whatsoever if our suicide rate matches the norm in the public. I think the Armed Forces should have a zero suicide rate," Gen. Vance said.
"I would like to do everything I can to get there. The science … will tell you that this is impossible. But at least we should try."
In mandate letters to his ministers made public Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr to make a new suicide-prevention strategy a priority.
The defence chief said it makes sense that those who served in the army in Afghanistan are perhaps most at risk of killing themselves and should be a priority for suicide prevention. Between 2001 and 2014, nearly 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members did tours of duty in Afghanistan and the vast majority were from the army.
"It stands to reason why that group of people would be more prone to committing suicide, having a higher incidence rate, but, in my world, in terms of what we might do about it, those people may be the ones we need to look at more closely and have protocols for in order to try and help," Gen. Vance said.
The top soldier said the military has been grappling with how to prevent suicide for years. He said it's challenging.
"There are no suicides in this country as studied and examined as closely as they are in the Armed Forces," Gen. Vance said.
"We look at this all the time. We're trying to apply not only best practices but trying to apply best science. There is a point at which we get [to] where we are not sure if something will actually alleviate the problem."
But he said the Forces have to keep trying, including when it comes to encouraging those in need of mental health care to accept it.
He said people always ask themselves "What more could we have done?" after learning of suicide. "So we're going to ask ourselves the same question: Is there more we can do?"
With a report from Renata D'Aliesio