This is the second instalment in Speak Out On Suicide, a series running this week on Canada AM and on canadaam.ctv.ca. Clickhere for Monday's feature on suicide and youth.
For decades, the issue of suicide in active soldiers and retired veterans was something that no one wanted to talk about. But a number of programs both within and outside the military are finally focusing attention on the issue.
How big a problem is suicide in Canada's military? It's difficult to say. The Canadian Forces reports that the suicide rate among currently active soldiers is actually lower than that of the general public. But once many of those soldiers are released from the military, research shows their suicide risk can rise to higher levels than that of civilians.
Assessing the toll can be difficult, because beyond the clear-cut suicides are the more subtle instances in which soldiers end their own lives.
A veteran who drinks heavily to dull mental pain might be engaging in a slow form of suicide. A soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder and anger issues might take reckless risks if he's lost his will to live. And how about the veteran with depression who ends up homeless and dies far too young?
None of these deaths would register on the books as a suicide, but all might well be traced back to the soldier's time in service.
We've long known of the physical toll the battlefield can exact. But in recent years, the invisible mental wounds of war have finally been getting more attention. Canada now has specialized operational stress injury clinics, and trauma and stress support centres on bases across the country to treat soldiers and veterans for PTSD, depression and substance abuse issues.
The Canadian Forces say the programs are working, and emerging mental health woes are being nipped in the bud early. But there are still many who slip through the cracks.
They are the soldiers who perhaps don't meet the definition of PTSD and who have to struggle alone with psychological issues. Or they're the ones who agressively resist calling on the military's support services. Even Forces members who never saw a day of conflict can still suffer depression as they struggle to find their new place in life after retirement.
Homeless vets tell their story
The Department of National Defence, Veterans Affairs and Statistics Canada released a study earlier this year that tried to assess the scope of suicide in soldiers. One of the surprising findings was that middle-aged veterans who had served from 1972 to 1986 appeared to have a greater risk of committing suicide, compared with the same civilian age group.
This is the same age group that Susan Ray, an assistant nursing professor at the University of Western Ontario, recently studied. She and colleague Cheryl Forchuk recently took on a first-of-its-kind study in which they sought out about 50 homeless veterans across the country. They interviewed each of them to better understand their stories and how they found themselves homeless.
She and her team expected to discover that the vets were struggling with PTSD and military trauma, since that has been the picture seen in the U.S.. Instead, they found that more than half these middle-aged vets had never been deployed once during their military careers. Most had served with the Canadian Forces at a time when Canada was engaged mostly in short peacekeeping missions, not the type of full-scale conflicts as the recent Afghanistan missions.
Many of these veterans were later caught up in military budget-slashing of the 1980s. That meant that counselling programs that might have helped them with their depression got the axe.
The veterans told Ray that they had had difficulty adjusting to civilian life, which led many to heavy drinking, which then spiralled into unemployment, family breakups, and homelessness.
"They said their best years were in the military," Ray told CTVNews.ca. "…But when they got out, many of them felt they were ill-prepared to take care of themselves. They didn't know how to adapt. So they would start drinking to hide from the problems and then downward they would go."
Ray says these days, Veterans Affairs Canada does a much better job of screening soldiers for psychological problems before they are discharged. In recent years, VAC has also begun regularly sending outreach workers to visit homeless shelters, looking for vets who want their help.
Current military programs might be in jeopardy
After nearly a decade of rising defence spending and with the combat mission in Afghanistan now over, the Department of Defence is expected to begin to trim its budget in the next few years, possibly putting some veterans support programs in jeopardy.
That's why a program such as the Veterans Transition Program at the University of British Columbia might prove crucial. The UBC program is designed to help soldiers whose counselling and career transition needs aren't being fully by current VAC programs. It's independent of the military's budget, yet is meant to work intandem with their programs.
Tim Laidler, 26, is one of those soldiers who's used the program. He says he struggled with nightmares and other psychological issues for close to a year after returning from an eight-month tour in Afghanistan. But after meeting with the military's social workers and undergoing counselling at a Canadians Forces' OSI clinic, he was told he didn't have PTSD.
And yet he was still finding it difficult to talk with family and friends about what he had experienced overseas. He also found himself getting furious whenever he heard civilians trying to discuss the topic of Afghanistan, "with no idea what they were talking about."
"I would get really activated and I would feel myself getting really, really ramped up," Laidler told CTVNews.ca. "My skin was getting red hot and I would just ruminate on it for hours. And that would be just from someone saying, ‘How was Afghanistan?'"
On the advice of a friend, Laidler tried the Veterans Transition Program. Over three months, he underwent 10 days of group counselling with fellow soldiers and psychologist Marvin Westwood, the UBC psychology professor who helped to found the program.
"It was just so rewarding," Laidler remembers. "I got so much out of watching other soldiers tell their stories. I remember thinking, ‘That's the same way I feel. I get angry when someone says that to me as well.' It felt really validating that others were feeling what I was feeling."
Before the program, Laidler had trouble admitting that his deployment had deeply affected him. Now, he helps to assist other soldiers with their transitions and serves as the program's operations coordinator.
Laidler says that not only does the program help soldiers to "drop their emotional baggage," it counsels them on how decide what they want to do next with their lives.
Ongoing research shows the program is working: helping to relieve the symptoms of depression among soldiers and increase their feelings of hope and optimism, Laidler says.
"This isn't just a light career transition counselling. There is hard psychology for people who are at risk of severe depression and eventually suicide," Laidler says.
The hope now is to launch the program nationwide, thanks to a grant from the Royal Canadian Legion. Laidler says he's glad the program was there when he needed it most.
"I'm always grateful to the Legion for being forward-thinking enough to have this program ready for me when I came home," Laidler said. "I know it was at the expense of numerous soldiers not having adequate programs when they came home."