Concerns surrounding support for Canadian military members and veterans living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been amplified after a military veteran and three family members were found dead inside their Nova Scotia home late Tuesday in an apparent murder-suicide.
The victims have been identified as 33-year-old military veteran Lionel Desmond, his wife Shanna Desmond, 31, their 10-year-old daughter, Aliyah, and his mother, Brenda, 52.
Desmond was a member of the Canadian Forces and had recently served in Afghanistan, Catherine Hartline, Shanna Desmond’s aunt told Global News. After returning to Canada, he had sought treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“He didn’t get the help. He should have had the professional help he needed and it was not done right away. When the man showed the signs he should have been put somewhere to have a full recovery,” Hartline said.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD is classified as a psychiatric stress-related disorder that develops as a result of a traumatic event. PTSD can develop following direct or indirect exposure to violence, death and traumatic events such as war, crimes, accidents and terror attacks.
People with PTSD often go through flashbacks, such as nightmares; their bodies are hyper-aroused and easily startled; they have problems with sleeping, suffer from mood disorders, anger and irritability.
According to the Canadian Forces, these symptoms are often characterized by four things – “re-experiencing,” having nightmares, or flashbacks; “avoidance,” avoiding crowds, or situations which may remind the person of the traumatic experience (i.e. hearing a car backfire may sound like a gun firing to a solider); “negative cognition and moods,” feeling a sense of guilt, distancing yourself from others; and “hyper-arousal,” self-destructive behavior, irritability and angry outbursts, trouble sleeping.
One in ten veterans of the Afghanistan war are diagnosed with PTSD, twice the rate of non-Afgan veterans, according to Statistics Canada.
WATCH: Government needs to provide mental health education to soldiers: Doucette
While identifying and diagnosing PTSD can be done through simple screening measures, Allison Crawford, medical director of Northern Psychiatric Outreach Program and Telepsychiatry, noted the process can be complicated by the circumstances surrounding the person affected.
“People can hide it – if they feel there is stigma around it, or they don’t feel like they can talk about it,” Crawford told Global News. “It does require the person to come forward and feel comfortable talking about it. But, if you ask the right questions, it’s easy to screen for.”
Crawford noted many military members, not just those in the Canadian Forces, may feel that its harder to come forward because they are trained to be “tough.”
WATCH: PTSD in the wake of Fort Lauderdale shooting. Vassy Kapelos reports.
What does Canadian Forces say about mental health help?
Global News asked the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) about the kind of services available to military members. Jennifer Eckersley, spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, said regular force members with PTSD or mental health issues can access care in a number of ways – by seeing their primary care clinician, going directly to the mental health department in the base clinic on a walk-in basis, or by going to the emergency room if they are in need of urgent care.
“The primary care team can do an initial assessment and start treatment, and refer to a mental health specialist if required,” said Eckersley. “The need and urgency of specialized mental health assessment and treatment (by a psychiatrist or psychologist) is then made. Urgent cases are seen sooner, but the benchmark for routine cases is within 28 calendar days for the initial assessment by a psychologist or psychiatrist.”
Regular force members can also contact the Canadian Forces Members Assistance Program (CFMAP), a 24/7 confidential employee assistance program which provides access to a professional counselor.
The CFMAP website notes it is not a “therapy” program.
“This is a short-term problem-solving service and very often only a few short sessions are required. If long-term help or a more specialized service is needed, a referral to an appropriate professional resource can be made,” reads the website.
According to Eckersley, the CAF also has seven operational trauma and stress support centres, which specialize in treating operational stress injuries such as PTSD.
Military needs better approach to PTSD: veteran
The Canadian military has faced backlash over its response to mental health issues among its members for years – and veterans continue to call on the military to take a more proactive approach to identifying and reaching out to those suffering.
A Halifax-area veteran, who retired from the military nearly three years ago, said it took him about a year to be able to self-identify his struggle with PTSD. The member, who asked not to be named, said he was disappointed in the care he received when he reached out for help in Halifax.
“They treated my particular situation as being ‘cookie cutter.’ Their initial response was one of we will get you on a waiting list and see if we can get you in. It should be about three months or so,” he told Global News.
“Well that didn’t work for me at the time. Until I became quite upset with what was going on and the fact that they began to identify me as being ‘outside the norm’ – and I think the only way it got to that point was because I came unglued at the hospital.”
INVISIBLE WOUNDS: If mental health help is there, why aren’t soldiers getting it?
In a 2014 series titled “Invisible Wounds,” Global News spoke to several veterans who claimed there were gaps in the system that prolonged the process of getting mental health treatment.
Veterans of the Afghanistan war are also retiring at escalating rates, putting pressure on the CAF’s mental health system.
The Liberal government pledged to cut wait times for mental health treatment during the election campaign and has allotted $78 million over five years towards reducing the number of veterans each case manager handles. However, veterans maintain the military should be doing more to asses their members mental health.
WATCH: Veterans advocate Peter Stoffer says those who suffer PTSD aren’t getting enough help from the federal government.
“It’s up to the military to help people identify that sooner than later. There’s an intelligence assessment that needs to happen by supervisors. You need to be able to read your people and maintain a conscious effort into their well being,” said the retired member.
“Unless you’re willing to do that there will be more problems there will be more things that will happen. Divisional systems need to step up and look after their people. Follow up care is something that needs to happen.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 911 can send immediate help. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.
– With files from Heide Pearson, Natasha Pace and Carmen Chai