‘More than 200’ military members share stories of mental illness: DND

WATCH ABOVE: The DND has released the first video installment in a series they say was created to demonstrate that help is available to the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces (Video courtesy of the DND and CAF).

TORONTO – More than 200 Canadian military personnel who have suffered a mental health issue and sought care have reportedly come forward to share their stories in a series of online videos for the Department of National Defence (DND).

“You need to think about what you need to do, what’s best for you and your family,”  said Kevin Ablett, chief petty officer, 2nd class for the Canadian Armed Forces in the video. “You have a long life. Go live it.”

SPECIAL SERIES: Global News spoke with five current and former members of the Canadian Forces, each with post-traumatic stress disorder. What they revealed amounts to a crisis in the military. READ THEIR STORIES HERE.

In January, the DND said they reached out to CAF members in hopes that some volunteers who have experienced a mental health issue would speak about their treatment and recovery.

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READ MORE: DND requests soldiers’ stories of mental health illnesses, treatment

In the past few months, a spate of suicides has prompted a lot of public attention on the care and services available to soldiers and their families.

Addressing the stigma of mental health

Completed last month, the video looks at the positive experiences of members in accessing CAF mental health services.

“The purpose of these videos is to keep mental health and wellness top of mind, and to provide members with examples that demonstrate that help is available,” said National Defence and CAF spokeswoman Lindsay Tessier.

“The goal is for members to recognize that coming forward for treatment is an essential, positive step.”

Tessier said that great efforts are being made to identify personnel with mental health problems and to provide them with assistance in the form of treatment, counselling or other types of support.

READ MORE: Campaign urges soldiers to connect to fight mental illness stigma, suicide

In the first installment, Canadian TV personality and political satirist Rick Mercer provides an introduction by encouraging men and women of the Canadian Forces to take advantage of the medical care available to members of the military.

“Many Canadians struggle with mental health problems but members of the Canadian Forces are at an increased risk because of the work that you do,” said Mercer.

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“There are many misconceptions about mental illness. There’s a stigma about it – and one that needs to go away.”

“The military’s health care system is there to help members like you. If you are a veteran, there are services and benefits available to you as well. But they can’t help you if you don’t come forward.”

Mercer is renowned for his rants and has previously slammed the government for their treatment of veterans and, most recently, for cuts to Veterans Affairs that eventually lead to the closure of nice offices across Canada.

‘No shame in having a mental illness’

The video then shares the stories of several members who have suffered a mental illness and sought care.

“Seeking help was the best decision I ever made, because I mean, today I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, my husband is saying ‘I got my wife back’ my kids are saying ‘we got our mom back,'” said Capt. Kim Miller.

“There’s no shame in having a mental illness,” said Sgt. Lynne Gagnon in the clip“It takes strength of character to seek assistance and you have to be strong; you can’t wait because the longer you wait the worse it will get; things will just get more difficult.”

You can read the full transcript of the video here.

According to the CAF website, approximately 15 per cent of regular force personnel access mental health services each year. CAF said that although efforts have drastically reduced the time their members wait before seeking care, it remains a problem in the CAF and in the general population.

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“While most with persistent problems do eventually seek care, some wait years or even decades to do so,” said CAF. “During this period, they suffer unnecessarily, are not as productive as they could be, and their condition may become more difficult to treat successfully.”

Tessier said that other videos are in the works and are expected to focus on the process of treatment, transition, suicide prevention, and further focus on member experiences.

Since 2002, the federal government has poured nearly $110 million into improving mental health services within the military, including an often quoted $11.4 million announced just prior to the ombudsman’s report.

In January, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair wrote the prime minister and urged him to make military suicides a priority. New Democrats also called for an acceleration of the investigation process for suicides within the military, some of which have been pending for five years.

Veteran advocates have previously spoken out about the need urgent need for more mental health and transition support for members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

‘A solid message’

Michael Blais, founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said he has seen the first video and believes that that it “delivers a solid message” and “is a step in the right direction.”

“I hope that they play a part in a greater program to reduce stigma withing the military and encourage those who are suffering from mental wounds to seek help,” he told Global News.

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Last month in a news conference, Blais said a decades-old commitment to care for those who served, particularly wounded soldiers, has been abandoned by the Conservatives as they prepare to commemorate the sacrifices of war in Afghanistan.

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. If it is an emergency, call 911.

Blais said he encourages self-identification of mental wounds and encourages serving members and their families to seek DND mental help lines as “stigma has no place within our band of brothers and sisters.”

Wounded Warriors Canada national ambassador and recently retired Lieutenant Colonel Chris Linford, 53, said the video is timely and is pleased to see the Canadian Forces engaging purposely when it comes to talking about mental health issues in the military.

“By creating this video, [the DND and Canadian Forces] are admitting there’s an issue,” said Linford. “I would hate the idea they are tying to minimize it.”

Linford said he is very proud of the people who shared their stories and struggles. Linford joined the military as a nursing officer in 1988 and was deployed on several domestic operations as well as three operational tours overseas to the Gulf War, Rwanda and Afghanistan.

He was originally diagnosed with PTSD in 2004 – 10 years post Rwanda. Linford said he has battled his injury and has spoken about his journey in hopes of reducing stigma that he says often prevents others from coming forward.

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“I know it can take a long time to come forward and seek help,” he said. “It wasn’t until I [had] my own personal ‘meltdown’ that I knew I could no longer cope with my illness.”

Linford said he used the military services and sought help through the health clinic in Victoria, B.C., where he went through a year’s worth of therapy with medication.

‘We cannot forget the troops’

On March 18, the last of Canadian troops returned from combat operations in the Afghanistan war, marking the end of a military mission that spanned more than a decade and claimed the lives of 162 Canadians.

READ MORE: Canada in Afghanistan – was it worth it?

“While the mission in Afghanistan is over and we are no longer losing troops, the mental health issues that will amount over the next decade is what we need to focus on now,” said Linford. “We cannot forget what happened to the troops that went there and we need to maintain the mental health resources that we have. It would be criminal to cut those service now that the war is over.”

Linford predicts mental health issues in the Canadian Forces will probably be “of the highest priority in the next decade or so” and that the conversation surrounding mental health illness must continue.

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“Maybe one day we might even forget that PTSD was stigmatized at all,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press