Canada's Veterans Affairs Minister says members of the military with mental-health issues should not fear they will be automatically discharged when they step forward for treatment.
Soldiers have said they worry that a diagnosis of a mental illness will result in a fast-track ticket to civilian life at the same time the military reports that there is an elevated risk of suicide among those who have been deployed on overseas missions such as the one to Afghanistan.
"Having a mental-health challenge does not mean the end of your military career. I think that has to get out there long and loud," Kent Hehr said.
The Globe and Mail wrote last Saturday about Brad Elms, a 51-year-old army captain and veteran of multiple deployments who killed himself in November of 2014. His family believes he had post-traumatic stress disorder but did not get the medical confirmation because he worried it would destroy his career.
He is one of at least 62 soldiers and veterans who have taken their lives after returning from the gruelling Afghanistan mission, a continuing Globe investigation has found. Some were receiving medical treatment and facing a looming discharge from the military.
About 15,000 members have been dismissed from the Canadian Forces for medical reasons since 2001, when the Sept. 11 attacks triggered the Afghanistan war. Many of these former soldiers are too ill to work or have not found steady employment.
Mr. Hehr, who is also the Associate Minister of National Defence, told an Economic Club of Canada event in Ottawa on Tuesday that the government must find better ways to keep Canadian Forces personnel on the job after they have sought help for a mental illness.
And the services must be in place to help people get back to to their full capacity, he said, "to get back to their careers, what they wanted to do their entire lives."
The so-called "universality of service" rule says all Canadian Forces members must be able to perform a broad range of military tasks – including being able to deploy to any geographical location on short notice and work under physical and mental stress.
The rule presents a "complex and challenging problem" for those with mental illness, Mr. Hehr conceded. But in those cases where there is no possibility that a soldier, sailor or member of the air force can continue in the military, more must be done to help them make a smooth transition to civilian life, he said, "whether that be through educational opportunities, workplace related stuff, or just feeling comfortable in their own skin."
Corey Shefman, a Winnipeg lawyer who has represented a number of clients who were discharged from the military because they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, said hundreds of soldiers continue to be let go from the military every year as a result of mental-health issues.
"We acknowledge that the Forces needs to maintain a different set of standards than civilian employment and you can't just let in anyone who walks in the door," Mr. Shefman said. "But a soldier who's been serving, who had dedicated their career to the military and who in the course of their service becomes disabled, whether physical or psychological, needs to be accommodated."
Several experts told the Economic Club audience that the isolation and sudden lack of connectedness that comes with an unwanted release only serve to compound a problem that, in many cases, can be directly traced to life in the Forces.
Retired army captain Andrew Garsch, a former military engineer, was released due to the seizures, memory issues, anger and lack of concentration he experienced after a bomb blew up in front of his car in Afghanistan.
"I stopped trusting myself and questioning my abilities. I went down the seemingly never-ending cycle of self-doubt and confidence loss which spiralled into full-on clinical depression," Mr. Garsch told the Economic Club. "It was the release itself that was the nail in the coffin, a weight that drove me into despair, ruined my family life and nearly caused me to take my own life."
He pulled himself out of his depression when he took part in a program called Shaping Purpose, which helps people move through a less structured period of their lives, like that experienced by ex-soldiers. But over all, Mr. Garsch said, "veterans lack the direction they need in order to transition to civilian life."
Gary Walbourne, the military ombudsman, agrees.
Although the Canadian Forces have made great strides in recent years in the accommodation of mental illness, Mr. Walbourne said, there is still much stigma attached. And if someone in the military has an operational stress injury, he said, they could very well find themselves being released after seeking help. It all depends on the severity of the malady, the type of treatment that is available and the person's ability to recover.
Those people need to be shown that there is a meaningful life after service, Mr. Walbourne said. "Doing more of the same is not going to get us out of the hole we are in," he said. "It's time for a change."
With a report from Renata D'Aliesio