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opinion

Antoon Leenaars is a Windsor, Ont.-based psychologist and author of Suicide Among the Armed Forces

The military is all about secrets; secrets are important in war. If you're successful in the military, you will be adept at keeping secrets. So it's no wonder then, that when soldiers return home, a willingness to share – feelings, memories, experiences – might not be so easy. But this needs to change: Mental health issues of veterans should not be kept secret, and they're clearly killing our soldiers. As reported in The Globe this week, there have been at least 59 suicides of Canadian military members.

Yes, secrets are a part of the job: But some secrets – such as, thou shalt not be aware that mental health suffering is a cost of service – are a source of anxiety, depression and suicide. It is, indeed, a cost of war. The time for internal, damaging secrets should end when the soldier returns home.

The critical question in seeking help and prevention is this: What environment are our soldiers returning to? Is it a helpful, supportive environment? The Canadian military says yes – that it has good services for military personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. But the soldiers and veterans say no. We hear that there is a lack of help. From our suicidal veterans, we hear that they received a ball to squeeze, a pill to take, one visit with a psychologist, and so on. Is this the best care we can give?

A homecoming should signal to the soldier that the enemy is no longer a threat. The kind of care that the soldier or veteran receives may well be adding to our suicide rates. Sanctuary trauma, as first described by American physician Steven Silver who worked with Vietnam War veterans, occurs when a person, after a war, expects a supportive and protective environment but are left alone in their trauma with little or no care. So if a veteran returns, mentally wounded, and is not comforted by the care they receive - that can deepen the wound.

A person considering suicide is living in pain – the worst kind of all. Suicide is not an easy way out, but reflects that we as a society need to be better at caring for these suffering veterans. In this way, our Canadian environment has failed our soldiers who died by suicide. So what can help? There are many anodynes, things that reduce or stop pain: medication, psychotherapy and hospitalization. There are many ways to prevent suicide, all evidence-based. But the help cannot be, as it currently is, a one-size-fits-all approach. Soldiers deserve specific treatment based on their needs. Our help has to be an effective, multifaceted approach to prevent suicides

If the Canadian Armed Forces is serious about addressing the crisis, it must address all angles of suicide: prevention, ; intervention, , and postvention (offering immediate and ongoing help to not only the deceased's family but also their close-knit military community). The risk for suicide by those closest to a person who has died by suicide is drastically higher: We know that there is an increased risk for suicide in survivors – even the deceased's therapist is at risk.

Another critical step: The Canadian Forces must see that mental health issues are a normal response to war. That it must stop viewing mental health issues such as depression and PTSD in the military as grounds for termination. Can you imagine if any other work force had a policy to fire an employee with mental illness – and their families would lose benefits?

How conducive is this environment to letting go of secrets?

The current landscape is unacceptable: Suicide prevention can only begin when it changes. We must not accept the unacceptable – that is, the Armed Forces must do better than a cookie-cutter mould offering of the same therapy and the same medication.

Too little has been done to prevent suicide among the Armed Forces, but as Canadians we must also look within our own communities and see how we can do better. What can all Canadians do to help our wounded warriors? Beyond buying a poppy, what will you do?

If you know someone returning from a tour abroad, reach out and check in. Don't underestimate the power of compassion and friendship. Even if you don't know a veteran, every Canadian should write to their local MP with the words: "We owe our warriors more than what is occurring. We need a national military PTSD strategy that is truly responsible and comprehensive."

We – all of us – can help. It takes our nation. We will be judged by how we treat our wounded and broken: Let's not let them slip away.

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