Nearly one in 10 of the Canadian military personnel who took part in the mission in Afghanistan are now collecting disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder – and experts say the prevalence of the disease is likely much higher among Canada's combat troops.
In briefing notes prepared last fall for Kent Hehr as he took over as Minister of Veterans Affairs, bureaucrats explained that 14,372 clients of the department were receiving disability benefits for PTSD, a mental disorder triggered by a terrifying event or series of events. "Of the 14,372," they wrote, "there are 3,578 related to service in Afghanistan."
The Department of National Defence says more than 39,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in Afghanistan or in support of the mission. That means at least 9 per cent of Canada's Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD.
But the 39,000 figure includes support personnel who never set foot in the war zone, and people who were deployed but were not among those fighting on the front lines – the troops most likely to have been exposed to the types of danger and traumatic events that can trigger PTSD.
So the fact that nearly a tenth of all the Canadian soldiers, sailors and air personnel who participated in the Afghanistan mission have now been diagnosed with PTSD and are collecting benefits from Veterans Affairs suggests the disease is much more widespread among those who directly confronted the Taliban.
"My inclination is that that number is pretty light," says Mike Blois, the former president of the Afghanistan Veterans Association of Canada, who was diagnosed with PTSD and a brain injury after his deployment to Kandahar. "When you break it down with what job people did, and the higher levels of occurrence of PTSD in people who are out at the forefront of the combat operations, then it will be a lot higher."
In addition, Mr. Bois said, there are unquestionably many PTSD victims still actively serving in the military who have not reached out for benefits, and others who have never been diagnosed.
Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said the rates of psychological distress in returning veterans from Afghanistan has been high.
"The generally accepted prevalence of PTSD in the general population runs anywhere from 2 to 5 per cent, depending on what study you read," Dr. Feinstein said. "So the numbers are certainly a lot higher than that. And that really is not surprising. The exposure to danger in Afghanistan has been so great that you would expect some psychiatric casualties."
Symptoms of PTSD include uncontrollable flashbacks, avoidance of places or people that trigger bad memories, depression and emotional outbursts. It can be completely debilitating and, in some cases, can prompt sufferers to take their own lives.
A Globe and Mail investigation last year exposed the high rates of suicide among Afghan veterans. Seventeen serving military members killed themselves in 2015, including six who had taken part in the Afghanistan war – raising the number of soldiers and veterans who have died by suicide after returning from the mission to 62.
Greg Passey, a psychiatrist who works with PTSD patients at the B.C. Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Vancouver and who spent more than 22 years in the military, said research he conducted on Canadian peacekeepers who served in Yugoslavia suggested 15.5 per cent of them probably suffered from PTSD. "About 49 per cent of all individuals with PTSD actually think about suicide and about 19 per cent attempt," Dr. Passey said.
Two of the veterans who were seeking help at his clinic took their own lives between Remembrance Day and the beginning of December of last year.
"Both of those, as I recall, were Afghanistan," he said. "What the Canadian public and the government does not seem to appreciate is that a lot of these individuals develop this wound, PTSD, and that wound eventually kills them through suicide, drugs, alcohol overdoses, things like that …We end up with these soldiers, veterans, dying years after their deployment, but as a direct result of their deployment, and they are not recognized. They are our unknown fallen."
Mr. Hehr said he has been given a clear mandate to address the mental-health problems affecting Canada's veterans. "Even one soldier, sailor or aviator suffering from the invisible wounds of a mental-health injury is one too many."
But Irene Mathyssen, an NDP MP, said the numbers demonstrate that many of Canada's young men and women have already sacrificed big parts of their lives. "They are a reminder of the critical need for the critical support services for our military and our veterans," she said. "The fact that we still have an unacceptable number of suicides among our veterans and Canadian Forces personnel, I think, underscores that."