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For every suicide in the Canadian Forces, at least one attempt was recorded: documents

Canadian soldiers shown on patrol outside Salavat, in the Panjwayi district, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, June 7, 2010.
Canadian soldiers shown on patrol outside Salavat, in the Panjwayi district, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, June 7, 2010. Anja Niedringhaus/The Canadian Press/AP

OTTAWA — For every suicide reported in the Canadian Forces last year, there was at least one attempted suicide, protected National Defence documents reveal, adding to a morbid tale unfolding after four men in the Forces apparently took their own lives in recent days.

The actual number of suicide attempts, however, likely reaches far higher than the documents suggest, only hinting at the problem at hand, said Col. Rakesh Jetly, a military psychiatrist.

The military fills out a detailed form each time one of its current members commits suicide, attempts suicide or when it becomes aware of someone suspected to have attempted suicide.

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The Canadian Armed Forces collects information on sudden deaths, including suicides, but only among males, since the low incident rate among females makes the data statistically unreliable, according to National Defence.

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Last year, 10 men in the Forces committed suicide, according to National Defence.

The newly-released documents, heavily redacted to protect personal information, detail at least 11 attempts at suicide throughout 2012, as well as the 10 suicide cases.

The documents, released under Access to Information laws, do not offer much insight into the cases other than noting that military police responded to some incidents, or that a victim was transported in an ambulance with a police escort, or anticipating the potential level of media interest.

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The chain of command in the Forces doesn’t always become aware of a member’s attempted suicide, Jetly said.

“It’s very difficult to capture attempts,” he said. “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.”

For that reason, the actual number of attempted suicides among the Canadian Forces is unknown, Jetly said.

“It’s definitely higher [than 11]. But how much—two times? Three times? Ten times? We don’t know,” he said. “There are always many more attempts than completions.”
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Advocates for veterans have said that for every suicide in the Forces, as many as 12 have attempted the same fate.

When the chain of command becomes aware of an attempted suicide within the Force, the Number One priority becomes getting that person into care, according to Jetly.

But even if someone is getting help, they aren’t necessarily immune from the threat of suicide.

READ MORE: Veterans advocates issue warning over recent soldier suicides

The decision to take one’s life is often the result of a perfect storm, a confluence of an illness that’s not fully treated and some sort of crisis, Jetly said.

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“It’s such a rare event, it’s so difficult to predict.”

Defence officials on Wednesday released the name of a soldier at CFB Valcartier in Quebec who died Dec. 2. Military police are investigating the death, but Master Cpl. Sylvain Lelievre is the fourth soldier believed to have committed suicide since last week.

The deaths have brought the particular struggles and sufferings of soldiers into the spotlight.

Before Lelievre, two soldiers in Western Canada and a senior non-commissioned officer at Canadian Forces Petawawa, northwest of Ottawa, also died of suicides.

The four recent deaths have involved active members of the Force, but the federal veterans ombudsman, Guy Parent, expressed his sympathy.

READ MORE: Veterans, advocacy groups say Canadian soldiers need mental health, transition support

“It’s not a matter of numbers. It has nothing to do with numbers,” he said. “It has to do with what got the people in those situations to make that decision, and if we can facilitate their voyage to transition, it would be much easier for everybody.”

The recent suicides hit home for Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, a retired general. With last week’s news, he said he has been unable to sleep, still in the grips of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time in Rwanda.

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He fell asleep at the wheel of his car Tuesday, crashing into a barrier on Parliament Hill.

The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program has a confidential 24/7 toll-free telephone advisory and referral service for all military personnel and their families: 1-800-268-7708.

With files from The Canadian Press.