Nearly half of Canadian military personnel exposed to child abuse before joining: researchers

In this file photo a Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan.
In this file photo a Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

Close to half of all Canadian military personnel were exposed to child abuse before they were 16 — a significantly higher rate than the general population — according to a new study from the Department of National Defence and the University of Manitoba. The study’s authors also examined how that exposure impacted suicidal thoughts, planning and attempts.

Here are the statistics for child abuse exposure:

  • Regular forces – 47.7 per cent
  • Reserve forces – 49.4 percent
  • Canadian general population – 33.1 per cent

“I was surprised it was as high as almost 50 per cent, and that means that almost half the people enter the military with a history of child abuse,” lead author Tracie O. Afifi, associate professor in the department of Community Health Sciences College of Medicine at University of Manitoba, told Global News.

The study’s authors cannot determine why the number is so high, but they have a hypothesis.

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“It could be they are trying to escape something at home,” said Afifi, “perhaps the military is a viable option, because then you can leave your house, and now you are living, working and developing a career in this environment, instead of leaving home with less resources to make something of your life.”

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The authors define child abuse exposure as being physical or sexually abused or witnessing abuse within the household or among close family.

Overall, child abuse exposure has been linked with increased suicidal thoughts, planning and attempts.

READ MORE: Crisis in the military – Invisible Wounds 

Child abuse had more impact in the general population when it came to suicidal behaviour than in military personnel.

But the risk for military personnel of suicidal thoughts and planning increased significantly by 4.6 times if the trauma experienced as a child was combined with deployment trauma.

The results were published in JAMA Psychiatry with an accompanying editorial written by two American researchers who recommend the results are used to “better serve the individuals who have bravely served their countries, adding, “a genuine and continuous effort to diminish the stigma of disclosing childhood abuse, and allocation of resources for epidemiologic efforts and treatment modalities to address issues of childhood abuse among military personnel.”

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READ MORE: Army suicide rate 3 times higher than other branches of Canadian military

The data was collected from the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey (CFMHS) and the Canadian Community Health Survey – Mental Health (CCHS-MH).

Afifi hopes this will lead to greater understanding in Canada of child abuse overall and its impacts.

“If we can prevent child abuse from happening then we might also see reductions in these side related outcomes.”

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