Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new comments from NDP leader Thomas Mulcair
TORONTO –The recent death of a retired Canadian Forces member once again has veterans advocates pointing to a mental health crisis in Canada’s military.
Retired Cpl. Leona MacEachern, a 20-year veteran with the Canadian Armed Forces, died on Christmas Day in a head-on collision west of Calgary.
Initially, reports indicated MacEachern’s death was an accident, however the veteran’s husband said that MacEachern died by suicide, calling her death an “intentional final desperate act” of his 51-year-old wife.
In a written statement, Leona’s husband Tom MacEachern said his wife intentionally drove her car over the centre line, hitting a transport truck that was travelling southbound. She was pronounced dead on the scene.
MacEachern said Leona was being treated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was released from a treatment facility for Christmas.
The federal government stressed on Thursday that “great efforts” are being made to provide support for members of the Canadian military “going through difficult times.”
“Canadians can trust that the Armed Forces take the issue of member suicide very seriously,” said Rob Nicholson, minister of national defence, in a statement.
But for some veterans and advocacy groups, not enough is being done to address mental illness in the military.
MacEachern said the extent of his wife’s treatment for PTSD was “to see a psychologist for 45 minutes a week to ‘assist in reaching your goal of symptom management’.”
“We would like to say that Leona had slipped through the cracks in the system but, in fact, there does not seem to be ‘a system’,” the statement continued.
It’s a statement that one Canadian veteran agrees with. “There is no system,” said Steve Critchley, a 28-year veteran of the Canadian Forces.
“Between the Department of National Defence, Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces, they all go in their own separate directions, they are not working together, and the basic game plan appears to be how fast can they dump people off on provincial health care systems,” said Critchley.
In the past few months, six Canadian soldiers have died by suicide.
Veterans advocates say that these suicides only hint at the magnitude of the problem.
MacEachern said he believes his wife’s PTSD symptoms manifested after “protracted battles” with Veterans Affairs over medical benefits.
He said Leona also experienced difficulty readjusting to civilian life, having spent most of her adult life in the Armed Forces.
“She felt there was no hope as no-one seemed to be addressing the root causes of her condition,” he said.
The Department of National Defence (DND) has defended its record of supporting veterans, saying it has set up support systems for military members and their families.
James Bezan, the parliamentary secretary to Nicholson, said the department has “compartmentalized” $50 million a year just for dealing with mental health.
NDP MP and Veterans’ Affairs critic Peter Stoffer, said the federal government needs to do more to assist veterans suffering from PTSD.
“You need to put more financial and human resources within DND and [the Department of Veterans’ Affairs] in order to assist the members of the military, and the RCMP, and their families when it comes to post traumatic stress disorder and operational stress injuries,” said Stoffer.
“And it needs to happen immediately.”
On Friday, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make the issue of mental health services for Canadian Forces members a personal priority.
“While we appreciate steps have been made to improve access to health services, and to remove the stigma associated with mental illness, it is clear that these efforts have not been sufficient,” said Mulcair.
Mulcair said there are over 50 reviews on military suicides that remain outstanding, “some as old as five years.”
“In too many cases, grieving families are left without answers or closure.”
Last month, officials including Harper and Chief of National Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson, expressed concern over the recent deaths, urging anyone struggling with mental health issues to get help.
“The loss of any soldier is painful and heartbreaking to our men, women and families,” said Lawson in a video posted to the Canadian Forces website.
“We have an expert health care system to support us, but in order for us to help each other it’s essential that all military personnel – like all Canadians – recognize mental health issues as they develop,” said Lawson.
“Although suicide is a national public health concern, for an organization like ours – built on leadership, built on camaraderie and built on strength – it hits us especially hard,” said Lawson.
Documents obtained by Global News show that for every suicide reported in the Canadian Forces in 2012, there was at least one attempted suicide reported.
But the actual number of suicide attempts could be far higher, since the military only files out a report when a current male member dies by suicide, attempts suicide or when it is suspected someone attempted to take their own life.
“It’s very difficult to capture attempts,” said said Col. Rakesh Jetly, a military psychiatrist. “They get captured if police and ambulance are involved, but there may be some people who quietly try to overdose from sleeping pills and alcohol, wake up the next morning and feel terrible about it. And we might not necessarily capture that.”
So, the actual number of attempted suicides is unknown, said Jetly.
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