OTTAWA – Former soldiers, veterans advocates and lawmakers wrestled with duelling theories Tuesday about what might be at the heart of a sudden series of suicides this fall among serving members of the Canadian military.
Testimony before two separate parliamentary committees struggled to come to grips with an issue some say defies explanation: what drives a person to the tragic, deeply personal decision to take their own life.
While the Harper government has invested millions bolstering mental health services at National Defence, scant attention is paid to helping the mentally and physically wounded transition to civilian life, the House of Commons defence committee was told.
The veterans affairs committee, meanwhile, heard Tuesday that the perceived financial uncertainty created by the government’s overhaul of veterans benefits is driving some soldiers to the brink.
At the same time, the head of the country’s special forces says it’s important to create an atmosphere where troops who struggle with their wartime experiences feel confident enough to speak up without fear of losing their career.
The debate is taking place against the backdrop of at least four apparent military suicides within a week in different parts of the country.
The Canadian military’s medical establishment is grappling to identify the triggers. A recent technical review of 38 suicide investigations catalogued 74 different recommendations that emerged from those probes.
There were 25 confirmed suicides in 2011 and an additional 17 deaths in 2012, said the September 2013 report, obtained by The Canadian Press.
National Defence says it has already acted on the vast majority of the suggestions through existing initiatives. But it pointedly rejected recommendations calling for extra mental health services staff to be assigned to specific units, such as special forces, and for more screening of all troops before and after high-stress postings.
The rejection of more screening runs contrary to a recent Canadian Medical Association Journal report where a University of Toronto mental health expert warned that patients exposed to traumatic events in the military should be routinely checked for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The paper’s author, Allison Crawford, described the chances of soldiers self-identifying as slim.
Reducing the stigma of mental illness is something the military has worked hard to overcome – both among regular and special forces, said Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, the commander in charge of special forces.
“You just have to make them confident they can self identify and there’s no consequences,” Thompson told The Canadian Press in an interview Monday.
“If you self-identify and go see the (medical officer) and you work your way to see various medical professionals, or maybe it’s just the padre; none of that stuff is career-ending and it doesn’t take you – as the guys would say – ‘out of the stack.”‘
National Defence has faced persistent accusations this fall that wounded soldiers, many of them with PTSD, are being summarily hustled out the door.
The upheaval of moving to civilian life can be exceptionally taxing, said Tim Laidler, the executive director of Veterans Transition Network.
“Post-traumatic stress symptoms are managed on their own, often with one-on-one therapy and they have lots of evidence proving the effectiveness,” said Laidler, a corporal in the reserves who served in Afghanistan.
“The complication comes when someone has to reinvent themselves moving from a military career over to a civilian life and deal with some of these post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and potentially depression symptoms.”
The technical review identified “career-related issues” as being involved in 21 per cent of the cases where someone took their own life. The No. 1 reason, according to the research, was a breakdown in a personal relationship.
Additionally, the review identified financial uncertainty as a factor in 15 per cent of the cases. Money is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by a group of Afghan veterans who argue that they are being discriminated against by changes to the benefits system.
The Harper government’s marquee legislation, the New Veterans Charter, largely converted the old pension-for-life system to a series of lump-sum awards and finite allowances – something the soldiers claim is far less generous.
“Frankly, the answers are fairly clear,” said Kevin Berry, a former private who served in Afghanistan in 2004.
“They are not the economically cheap variety that the government would like to see, but they are the right variety. You can’t put a price on everything. And frankly that would alleviate a great deal of stress for Canada’s serving and retired veterans to address the lump sum right away.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has asked a Commons committee to review the charter, including the compensation regime – a process Berry dismissed as an exercise in wheel-spinning.
“In the last two weeks we’ve had the suicides of four serving members,” Berry said.
“These are problems that are happening right now. Lives are hanging in the balance, and more reviews and more time wasted is more lives wasted.”