Feds pledge measures to prevent military personnel, veterans from taking their own lives
OTTAWA—The federal government is promising new research and funding, more health professionals and the attention of cabinet ministers and the country’s top soldier, all in a bid to prevent military personnel and veterans from taking their lives.
The departments of defence and veterans affairs on Thursday unveiled a joint suicide-prevention strategy, which brings many programs together as a part of a concerted effort to save lives.
The presence of three cabinet ministers, Veterans Affairs Seamus O’Regan, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Sherry Romanado, parliamentary secretary to the veterans affairs minister, underscored the political muscle now attached to the issue.
“This strategy is an approach that we have not seen before,” said O’Regan, who added that the political and military leaders recognize the “dire” need for a suicide-prevention strategy.
Between 1995 and 2014, 225 regular force males and 13 regular force women took their lives, according to a 2015 report. The report flagged that those in the army, who bore the brunt of the long Afghan mission, appeared at greater risk of suicide than personnel in other commands.
The government is in the dark about suicides among veterans, but is trying to change that with research now underway by Statistics Canada. The data could be ready in December and the results could help officials direct resources better.
“Our target is to eliminate the phenomenon of suicide in the armed forces and veterans. Many will say that’s impossible but . . . we cannot approach this with any other target in mind,” said Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff.
The strategy notes that suicide is “complex.”
“There is no typical case and there is not a single solution to the problem of suicide,” it states.
Most of those who take their own life suffer from a mental illness, usually depression, and have a life crisis, such as relationship problems or financial woes, it said.
Yet because many factors contribute to suicide, “there are multiple points of intervention and treatment that can help vulnerable individuals,” it states.
The strategy promises better communication, engagement and education. It highlights both continuing efforts to assist troops with their mental health and resiliency and also the need for timely access to health care. It emphasizes support for families.
“No strategy is going to solve all the problems, but this a big step forward,” he said.
In its series Wounded Warriors, the Toronto Star detailed the struggles faced by military personnel injured during their time in Afghanistan. That included soldiers who returned to Canada bearing the mental toll of their experience.
A key pillar of the new strategy is a new focus on eliminating the bureaucratic cracks when a soldier leaves the armed forces and becomes the responsibility of veterans affairs.
In the past, veterans have complained about the gap in services and paperwork delays in making this switch, and, in some cases, having to provide proof of their medical ailments all over again.
There is a new transition task force to improve collaboration between the two departments to ensure that discharged personnel have the required support programs in place before they leave the forces.
The changes will include better support for deploying soldiers, during the period before they head overseas, while deployed and when they come home.
While deployments can cause mental health woes, “it is not automatic that one becomes a victim of operations,” Vance said.
“I think that everyone who comes back from war is touched by it somehow. Everybody needs to have some sort of access . . . to a mental health care professional,” he said.
Vance also talked about a growing willingness within the forces to accommodate those whose mental and physical wounds make them unable to deploy.
In the past, soldiers with such injuries would have been forced out of uniform, a policy that Vance said is under review.
“We’ve got to adjust the policy to account for the fact that, sometimes, it takes longer to get well,” Vance said.
And, he said, he wants to eliminate any remaining stigma that might stand in the way of people seeking help: “You don’t get fired if you have a mental health issue; you get cared for,” he said.