TORONTO — A new study is shedding light on the psychological scars some Canadian soldiers face after returning from Afghanistan.
About 13.5 per cent of Canadian Forces soldiers who served in the Afghan mission have mental health issues linked to their deployment, a new federal government report says. Ottawa is calling it the “most rigorous” study on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, offering a glimpse into how military personnel cope years after they’ve returned to Canadian soil.
Dangerous locations — such as Kandahar — were even linked to higher risk of mental disorders.
“Deployment to Kandahar was associated with a particularly increased risk: it was almost six times the risk associated with deployment to the United Arab Emirates or the Arabian Gulf,” Dr. Mark Zamorski wrote in the study. He’s the director of mental health with the Canadian Forces Health Services Group.
“The results reflect the difficult nature of the mission. Previous estimates were based on post-deployment screening and not all cases or symptoms would have presented at this time,” the Canadian Forces told Global News in a statement.
The federal agency said none of the study authors was available for an interview. Instead, it provided a three-page summary and a list of its own questions and answers sheet.
Since 2001, more than 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel were sent abroad on the Afghan mission. It was the surgeon general at the time, now retired Commodore Dr. Hans Jung, who oversaw the health and livelihood of these soldiers, who requested the study to better understand the psychological impact of the mission on its participants.
The health records of a random sample of 2,045 people — 90 per cent men — were used in the study. The majority — 42 per cent — was sent to Afghanistan, followed by the Arabian Gulf, Kabul, Camp Mirage or other parts of the Middle East.
After four years, 13.5 per cent of this group had mental disorders linked to their posting, with PTSD and depression as the most common ailments.
Meanwhile, another 5.5 per cent of the sample group had mental health issues unrelated to their time in the Afghan mission. The report’s complete findings were published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
“There are truly no comparable studies from our allies, so direct comparison is not possible,” the Canadian Forces said in a statement.
It says that other nations have documented similar results, but there are disparities in military culture, experiences during deployment and access to mental health support that need to be taken into account.
Most Canadian soldiers were sent to Kandahar and the Arabian Gulf, but others were posted to safer regions, such as Camp Mirage, Canada’s logistics hub in Dubai, where less combat took place.
“We’re not surprised because we deal with this every day. It’s very real and it’s a very high number and we have a long battle ahead of us at home from what was a long battle in Afghanistan,” Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, told Global News.
He suggests the numbers may even be higher than 13 per cent, it’s just that some veterans may not be stepping forward to address any mental health issues they’re facing.
“We know one of the biggest barriers to mental health is talking about your injuries. It’s not just a result of being afraid of the repercussions, it’s not easy talking about mental health,” he said.
Wounded Warriors is a charity-based national organization that helps soldiers who have been wounded or injured during their service.
Right now, the organization’s priority is a two-pronged approach: helping with mental health and providing support to military personnel who are making that difficult transition back into civilian life.
Keep in mind, some veterans are as young as 23 or 24 years old. They may have joined the Canadian Forces straight out of high school and had the support of the military and their platoon while on a mission, Maxwell said.
“That’s all they know, that transition stage is a very different thing,” Maxwell said.
Other soldiers may be grappling with mental health issues – PTSD being the most common, Maxwell said. Sometimes, it’s survivors’ guilt, which may occur when a platoon loses one of its members. Canada lost 158 military personnel during combat and training missions in Afghanistan.
Other veterans might have been exposed to situations that still affect them years later.
“Everyone’s experienced different things and it can be triggered by different things. Just like there’s no silver bullet to the situation, there’s no one way to be diagnosed with PTSD,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said Wounded Warriors offers Canadian veterans a string of programs to help them improve their mental health or assist in reintegrating into society. That ranges from helping veterans find jobs to providing them with animal assisted therapy, such as horses or PTSD service dogs.
Read more: Service dogs for veterans
Last month, for example, a group of eight veterans, ranging from Bosnian war vets in their 50s to their younger Afghan war counterparts in their 20s, cycled 563 kilometres from Paris to London in the Help for Heroes Big Battlefield Bike Ride.
Each of the men suffer from PTSD.
For its part, Ottawa doled out $11.4 million in Sept. 2012 to cushion mental health care programs within the Canadian Forces. That brings the government’s mental health care budget to $50 million annually, according to the Canadian Forces.