With a new video message, the Centre of Excellence on PTSD and related mental health conditions is raising awareness on the emotional complexities many veterans and their families face during the holidays.
The centre is funded by Veteran Affairs and was started more than a year ago in order to help address the growing feelings of isolation and helplessness Canadian veterans can feel once trying to adjust back into civilian life.
According to the centre, there are almost 650,000 Veterans in Canada, as well as countless families, caregivers, friends, doctors, colleagues, and others who have a veteran in their inner circle.
“This initiative is basically a reminder to people that as they sit around the kitchen table with their folks is that not necessarily is everyone at that table having that same experience,” said Brian McKenna, veteran advisor at the Centre of Excellence.
“It’s not a message that there should be doom and gloom. It’s a message that sometimes things are experienced differently,” he added.
The centre says with the added pressure to be happy during the holiday season, feelings of anxiety can be triggered. It can also be a hard reminder of celebrations missed, and of comrades who have passed away.
“(The) pressure to act as though everything is okay, spend money that isn’t there and push feelings of depression and anxiety away can cause a deep loneliness,” McKenna said.
“I have been there, my first Christmas back was extremely challenging and clouded by painful memories,” he added.
The organization also says for many families this may be their first holiday season without their loved one.
And for some veterans who have seen poverty and scarcity experienced by so many around the world, this time can feel wasteful and upsetting — or cause emotional conflict.
“The kindest, most well-intentioned invitation over to a neighbor’s BBQ when you get back from a place where the ground could explode might have you not so willing to walk on grass, not as comfortable or enjoying the moment as everyone else might be,” McKenna explained.
He continues on to say the organization is working towards ensuring veterans feel seen and valid in their emotions in order help create a better future for them, letting them know there are numerous resources available.
With COVID-19 in the mix, feelings of isolation can deepen. However, despite the extra roadblocks, McKenna says the organization is focusing on how much online information they can provide, which is accessible to anyone in the country.
“Veterans deserve a better answer than trying to figure it out on their own, so a centralized place that has key pillars behind it of communication, research, knowledge mobilization, those are the things we bring to the table for veterans and their families,” he said.
In a statement sent out by the organization, Dr. Patrick D. Smith, President and CEO of the Centre, reminds others that if they are in crisis, they should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
“Talk to your doctor or health-care provider or contact a Veteran mental health specialist at 1-800-268-7708 to speak to someone who can walk with you on your healing journey,” Smith said.
“We want Canadian veterans to know you are seen, you are not alone and, together, we can have hope.’
Glenn Miller, a veteran from southern Alberta and member of the Lethbridge Royal Canadian Legion moved back home in the spring of 2003 after serving six months in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 25 years.
Miller has also been a part of a veteran peer support group at the Legion for years and recounts what his first Christmas back was like.
“Sights and sounds here in Canada would trigger some of the things I saw and interacted with in my tour, and so it took a number of Christmases to adjust somewhat, to be normalized — because you are thinking of those who replaced you, how they’re going to be doing and their families as well,” he explained.
Miller says he would need to remind himself he was back home in a safe country in order to feel calm and push aside his anxieties.
“Talking to other people, especially those coming back from Afghanistan, where roads were a safe sanctuary in some way, but also a killing ground, and so people here in Canada would be driving in the middle of the highway, because that’s where they felt safe, but for us Canadians, that’s not where you drive, you drive in your lane” he explained.
Miller added how long it takes for someone to transition back into to states of normalcy can depend on how bad their mental conditions are and how much help they are willing to seek and in turn are able to receive.
He says talking about his experiences with the peer support group has helped not only him and fellow veterans, but also their family members.