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Soldier suicides prompt concerns about military mental health support

Above: Three Canadian soldiers took their own lives this week — all of them veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Many other soldiers, still on active duty are suffering in silence. As Shirlee Engel reports, some say they’re not getting the help they need.

OTTAWA – Seven years after Warrant Officer Frank Mellish was killed in Afghanistan, his cousin, Warrant Officer Michael McNeil could no longer live with the pain of that loss.

According to Barry Mellish — McNeil’s uncle and Mellish’s father — the two men were like brothers and even served two tours together.

“We’re a close family,” he told Global News. “We always thought highly of him and him of us.”

With McNeil’s death by suicide, this week, Mellish said the family is reliving what it went through seven years ago.

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McNeil was one of three Canadian soldiers to die by suicide this week alone.

“He was suffering survivor’s guilt,” Mellish said in a phone interview from his home in Truro, N.S. “There’s no doubt in my mind he was.”

“I think they should have had him on a suicide watch… I think they dropped the ball on that,” he said.

McNeil died on Thursday at CFB Petawawa, northwest of Ottawa. His death came after that of Master Cpl. William Elliott on Tuesday, at a home near CFB Shilo in Manitoba, and Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast — who was previously based at CFB Shilo — on Monday at a correctional centre in Lethbridge, Alta.

Halmrast died three days after being found in distress at the correctional centre, where he was being held on charges of domestic assault, The Canadian Press reported.

Like McNeil, Halmrast and Elliott were veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

Their deaths have raised concerns about how well-equipped Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defence are to deal with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Jerry Kovacs of Canadian Veterans Advocacy told Global News in Ottawa on Friday this “is a wake-up call to the government.”

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“We’re hoping it’s an aberration… That no more Canadian soldiers will take this route,” he said. “We’re just hoping that these tragic events serve as a wake-up call to the government to say, ‘Listen, we can’t talk about this anymore, we really have to take action to make sure no [more] Canadian soldiers injure themselves.'”

DND defended its record of supporting veterans on Friday, saying it has set up support systems for military members and their families.

James Bezan, the parliamentary secretary to Minister of Defence Rob Nicholson, said the department has “compartmentalized” $50 million a year just for dealing with mental health.

“Suicide rates within the Canadian Armed Forces [are] well below the Canadian national average,” he said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the huge investments we have made into health care and especially in mental health.”
WATCH: Defence spokesperson defends record on veterans support following spate of soldier suicides

But, the government money and the added health care personnel doesn’t mean every single soldier is getting the treatment he or she needs to cope with PTSD and other mental health issues.

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Global News spoke with one active soldier, who asked to have his identity protected, who said he has attempted suicide three times.

“Only thing that kept me around is I wouldn’t do that to my children. If I didn’t have children I wouldn’t be here, “he said.

He said the services may be there, but some aren’t even getting in the door. At least not in time.

“Some try and get in,” the soldier said. I tried to get in. It takes months to get in. They treat you as quickly as they can and you’re back out the door.”

Experts in PTSD such as Dr. Greg Passey fear this week’s tragedies won’t be the last and stress more needs to be done.

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He said 50 per cent of soldiers with mental health problems will contemplate suicide and 19 per cent will actually attempt it.

Seventy-four Canadian full-time soldiers are known to have taken their own lives in the past five years. But that number doesn’t include reservists or veterans.

The military does investigate every suicide, but some of those investigations are lagging. The vast majority of the cases are still open files.

NDP Veterans Affairs Critic Peter Stoffer said the government needs to reach out to the families of the deceased soldiers to get a better grasp on what their situations were before they took their own lives.

“Of course their sensitivity of it has to be there,” Stoffer said. “But there’s nothing stopping the minister from having his officials reach out to these families and find out what exactly transpired.”

WATCH: Peter Stoffer: Soldier suicides should ‘shake Canadians to their very roots’

Bezan said the government is investigating the suicides of three soldiers who died this week.

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According to The Canadian Press, a number of mental health and defence experts have warned Canada could face a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers over the next five years as the after-effects of a decade of fighting in Afghanistan begin to settle in.

Guy Parent, Canada’s veterans ombudsman, said Thursday both National Defence and Veterans Affairs need to anticipate the flood, but he was coy when asked whether he believes the steps taken to date have been sufficient.

*With files from The Canadian Press