The recent deaths of four Canadian soldiers, all from apparent suicides, has raised the question, is the Canadian military doing enough to treat soldiers suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder?
It’s a question that needs answering, and it’s an issue that needs some action.
After the third death in late November, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told the House of Commons that since 2011, the Conservative government has spent millions of extra dollars on providing treatment and counselling for returning soldiers. Nevertheless, something isn’t working for a number of Canada’s military members. A Canadian Press story in the Lethbridge Herald on Nov. 29 noted that National Defence figures from last summer reported that 22 full-time members took their own lives in 2011.
Some have suggested the data doesn’t even give the full picture, since the statistics include only regular force members and exclude reservists who, because they’re part-time, fall under the umbrella of civilian agencies in their home provinces.
Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and an expert in military law, pointed out that in Canada, military boards of inquiry investigating deaths of soldiers are often held behind closed doors, so families of suicide victims don’t have automatic access to findings and recommendations. Britain, said Drapeau, has a better system in which every soldier’s death prompts a coroner’s inquest that is held in public.
Of course, that’s after the fact. What needs to be done is to identify and treat cases of PTSD before it leads to someone’s death.
The issue of PTSD needs to be taken seriously. One of those leading the charge to get more support for those suffering from PTSD is retired General Romeo Dallaire, now a Canadian senator, who knows first-hand the very real and very damaging effects of the disorder. Dallaire attempted suicide four times in the years after he commanded the failed United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda where more than 800,000 died in the horrific genocide.
In an article on the Health Sciences Association of Alberta website, Dallaire calls those with PTSD “walking wounded” and explains that the effects can take a toll years later. He notes that 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, but more than 102,000 committed suicide in the 20 years after returning home.
A recent Canadian Press story said family doctors can play an important role in initially screening patients at high risk of PTSD. Family members can also help by being aware of symptoms.
Clearly, it’s not a simple problem and there isn’t a simple, quick-fix solution. But members of Canada’s military need all the support they can get — especially from government — in order to prevent more PTSD sufferers from becoming suicide statistics.