Campaign urges soldiers to connect to fight mental illness stigma, suicide

American and Canadian soldiers pick their way through a grapefield at sunrise on Thursday June 2, 2011, for a joint patrol, in Zangabad, Afghanistan. AP Photo

TORONTO – A social media campaign is encouraging soldiers to come together and act as a support system for fellow comrades who “have slipped or are slipping through the cracks.”

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“Whether it’s through the phone, email, text message or a personal visit, you simply talk to the men and women you’ve served with in the past,” said the campaign’s co-founder Sergeant Brian Harding, a reservist with Ottawa’s Cameron Highlanders.

“You re-establish connections that time and distance have weakened, if necessary.”

With over 9,000 members on Facebook , the “send up the count” campaign encourages soldiers to connect with those they served with and share their personal stories on the campaign Facebook page and on Twitter @Sendupthecount.

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READ MORE: Harper urged to address soldier suicides as another death is reported

The Canadian military is dealing with another case of suspected suicide, the latest tragedy involves Corporal Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez, a veteran of the Afghan war.

Earlier this month, Lieutenant-Colonel Sean Hackett confirmed  that Cpl. Adam Eckhardt of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry took his own life on Jan 3.

Last week,  the husband of 51-year-old Calgary veteran Leona MacEachern attributed his wife’s death in a Christmas Day traffic collision to suicide.

And in December, there was a spate of suicides including four cases in one week.

READ MORE: A timeline of recent soldier suicides in Canada’s military

Harding, 27,  said he and his fellow comrade Master Corporal Jordan Irvine were talking about the issue of solider suicides in late November when Irvine had the “simple idea of contacting and checking up on all of his buddies from his tours in Afghanistan.”

READ MORE: Wounded Warriors announces national ambassador to focus on mental health, PTSD

“Rather than relying on some sort of official mental health follow up, his idea was simply that as peers, comrades and friends, we could contact the guys we know and simply and directly ask how they’re doing,” said Harding.

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“Essentially it was an idea to use the massive network of comrades in arms to act as a tripwire to warn of emerging mental health crises in our friends.”

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Harding said the issue of soldier suicides was one that had always been around, but was suddenly being “noticed” and that the degree of frustration with it amongst veterans had reached a very high level.

Beyond the issue of PTSD

Harding said that a soldier who decides to end his or her life is dealing with a mental health issue, within which “PTSD may play a greater, lesser, or no role at all depending on the person,” and stresses that that the group is not solely about PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

READ MORE: Recent suicide points to crisis in Canadian military, say veterans advocates

“The notion that all of our suicides have had PTSD at their root has been an irresponsible creation of the media who have sought a simple label rather than real subject matter knowledge,” he said.

“Soldiers kill themselves for the same reasons as anyone else—we just have our own additional array of potentially awful combat/operational stressors in addition to concerns about family, finances, love, employment, illness, and injury that anyone faces.”

The inspiration behind the campaign name

According to Harding, “send up the count” is based on a command given on fighting patrols—groups of soldiers on foot moving into harm’s way.

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“It’s a command by which the leader of a patrol tells his troops to number off from the rear of a column to the front,” said Harding. “When the number reaches the front, the leader will know that all their troops are still there and OK. It’s symbolic, and also something immediately grasped by the combat soldiers who were out initial core audience.”

READ MORE: Veterans advocates issue warning over recent soldier suicides

Harding said the Facebook group has since moved more broadly to an audience of all serving members and veterans, but the name has stuck.

“Not everyone’s fight is over”

Harding said reaching out for help can be as easy as offering a helping hand.

“Ours is the collective hand that will be there, when our brothers and sisters are drowning,” according to the group.

“It’s important not just to wait for an old friend to call, but to be proactive and to get in touch with those you’ve worked with; they may be suffering in silence.”

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

Harding said when reaching out to fellow soldiers, one should look for signs of stressors or challenges that could indicate risks of suicide at worse, or of depression, anxiety, addiction, any of the mental health issues broadly termed “operational stress injuries” in the Canadian profession or arms.

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The ongoing stigma in mental health

“Society is used to seeing blood, bruises and breaks—tangible wounds that we can see and understand,” said Harding. “A wound that affects the mind leaves so much more to the imagination. Society fears what it does not understand, and our soldiers suffering from these issues simply wear the same stupid stigma faced by anyone opening up with mental health issues.”

Harding said that, institutionally, the military has also always had high expectations of “soldiering on” through challenges including pain and hardship.

“It’s a mentality that’s necessary to do our job, but that can be taken too far or leaned on when it’s inappropriate,” he said. “It’s a problem at all levels in the military.”

Harding said that while he believes attitudes are changing, there are still some soldiers and leaders who don’t believe in PTSD and other operational stress injuries.

“They are part of the problem, they hurt soldiers, and the military will be better off as they quit or retire.”

Harding said overall, the response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive and that many soldiers have come forward to say other fellow soldiers have helped interrupt and reverse some terrible downwards spirals.

“The best thing for me has been the reaffirmation that the men and women we work beside will simply shelve all other issues and nonsense and look out for each other in times of need,” he said. “While can’t be everything to everyone, we seem to have inadvertently become a lot to many people. Those of us steering this have no ego riding on this; we’re happy with our success, and happier still seeing people take the idea in new, unexpected, and positive directions that can help soldiers and vets.”

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With files from The Canadian Press 

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