The Canadian military and government are adopting a more aggressive strategy to prevent suicide among soldiers and veterans, committing to overhaul how mental-health risk is handled during deployments and how seriously ill members and their families are supported at home.
Ordered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015 after The Globe and Mail's initial investigation of the mounting suicide toll among Canada's Afghanistan war veterans, the joint strategy will mean the Departments of National Defence and Veterans Affairs work together to reduce suicide risk from the day of recruitment to long after a soldier's release from the Canadian Armed Forces.
"We recognize the dire need for a suicide-prevention strategy," Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said in Ottawa on Thursday. "Nobody has all the answers. No strategy is going to solve all the problems, but this is a big step forward. This is about engaging everyone in a co-ordinated and collaborative effort to potentially save lives."
The Globe's continuing investigation has found that more than 70 Canadian military members and veterans who were deployed on the Afghanistan operation have killed themselves after returning home. Another six ended their lives while on tour, and are counted among the 158 mission deaths.
Many factors are often involved in deaths by suicide, such as mental illness, chronic pain, relationship breakdowns, financial troubles and alcohol abuse. The Globe's profiles of 31 Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide, published last fall, showed that many of the soldiers were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental illnesses connected to their experiences during the dangerous deployment.
In several cases, families felt that the military's health system and government programs for supporting ill and wounded veterans had failed their loved ones. In other instances, ailing soldiers never sought medical care because they feared doing so would harm their military careers, families told The Globe.
"Let's hope that this [strategy] will make a difference in reducing the number of lives that are taken and will offer these soldiers much more support," said Micheline Reed, whose son, Corporal Tony Reed, a 43-year-old father of two, ended his life in 2012 after struggling to overcome PTSD.
"The more [help] they can get, the better," said Vincent Shepherd, whose 23-year-old son, Corporal Brandon Shepherd, died by suicide in 2011. "There are a lot of hurtin' guys out there."
"They're not supposed to have any weaknesses – like a mental-health problem, stress, or even have their friends talk about it – because they're concerned it could end their career," Mr. Shepherd said.
General Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said the Forces must strive to normalize mental-health conditions and encourage more soldiers to seek medical help because recovery is possible. He said he's committed to a target of zero suicides and plans to expand the military's medical branch.
"We have to do everything we can to prevent every suicide," Gen. Vance said.
Earlier this year, one veteran's struggle with severe PTSD and depression led to deadly consequences for his family. Lionel Desmond, an infantry soldier in the Afghanistan war, was out of the army for just 18 months when he gunned down his wife, Shanna Desmond, their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda Desmond, before killing himself in their home in the rural Nova Scotia.
Relatives and veterans' advocates want an inquiry to be held in the triple murder-suicide to examine what medical care and support were provided to Mr. Desmond while he was in the military and after his release.
Improving how the Forces and Veterans Affairs handle seriously ill members who are leaving the military is a major facet of the joint suicide-prevention strategy. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the military and government recognize that they have to do more to engage families in the care of soldiers because families often drive recovery.
A systematic examination of how policies in the Forces and at Veterans Affairs affect the mental health of military members is being planned. This review is expected to identify further areas for improvement.
In the meantime, National Defence and Veterans Affairs have committed to numerous changes to reduce the risk of suicide, which has risen in recent years in the army, which shouldered the bulk of Canada's combat operations during the international Afghanistan mission.
The initiatives include the following:
- An expert in suicidal behaviour will be hired and military medical staff will be provided with guidelines for suicide prevention, which have been drafted with the Canadian Psychiatric Association;
- The Forces plan to examine whether military recruits should undergo more rigorous screening for mental-health conditions;
- A suicide-prevention program for deployment operations is in the works. The program would include measures to raise awareness about mental-health risks in the field. “Everybody who comes back from war is touched by it somehow,” Gen. Vance said. “Everybody needs to have some sort of access … to a mental health care professional to help you understand what you may feel and what you may go through;”
- The Forces are creating a new military transition group to ensure soldiers, sailors and air-force personnel aren’t discharged without proper support, complete paperwork and veterans’ benefits in place. About 10,000 people are released from the Forces annually and one-third of them struggle to adjust to life outside the military, government research has shown;
- A mental-health first-aid training program is being developed for families of veterans as well as for caregivers and advocates. The training would teach them how to respond to a vet who is in crisis and expressing suicidal thoughts.
Sylvie Duchesne's husband, retired Sergeant Claude Emond, died at their Quebec City home nine months after he was released from the military suffering from a badly injured back and PTSD.
She applauded the good intentions that are apparent in the joint strategy and welcomed measures to better prepare families for the transition out of the military. But she noted the realities at home are often emotional and very complicated.
"In black and white, it all looks great. Many of these ideas are very sensible," she said. "But the problems of these soldiers fall so much into grey zones. How do you rebuild a man who feels no purpose? Who has a destroyed back masking his inner turmoil? These are humans, so much more than soldiers with ranks and their 'yes sir, no sir.'"