Ground-breaking report identifies suicide risk factors in Canadian Armed Forces
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, November 10, 2015 3:41PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, November 10, 2015 11:10PM EST
A new report on the risk of suicide among men in the Canadian Armed Forces has, for the first time, identified risk factors, including having served in the Army (as opposed to another unit) and having worked with combat arms.
The Surgeon General’s report looked at the period between 1995 and 2014 and found that CAF suicide rates did not appear to be increasing, and were not statistically different from suicide rates of Canadian men overall, although it did not include veterans or reservists.
The report found 56 male suicides between 1995 and 1999, 50 between 2000 and 2004, 51 between 2005 and 2009, and 68 between 2010 and 2014. Overall, the suicide rates were similar to Canadian men in general.
The research did appear to show higher rates of suicide among those who had been deployed versus those who had never been deployed, although that the finding “fell just short of statistical significance.”
What was statistically significant was the higher rate among men who served in the Army, as opposed to the Navy and Air Force.
The higher rates were particularly apparent among men “in the combat arms trades,” who had suicide rates of 30 per 100,000, versus 18 per 100,000 among those who were not in combat arms trades.
“Deployment-related trauma (especially that related to the mission in Afghanistan) and resulting mental disorders are plausible mechanisms for these associations,” the report’s authors concluded.
Col. Rakesh Jetly, the CAF’s Senior Psychiatrist, said the report raises new questions about those under Army command.
“Does the Army have a different culture? Do they have a different make-up? Are the people who join the Army … different?” Jetly said.
Col. Andrew Downes, the CAF’s Director of Mental Health, told CTV Power Play Tuesday that the difference has never before been identified.
Downes said that mental illnesses such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are linked to “most cases,” so the next step for the military is to understand, “what is actually is behind mental illness and how is it that we can intervene?”
Cpl. David MacDonald is among those who experienced depression and PTSD after returning from Afghanistan.
“You hold it all in, you don’t talk about it,” he said. “And that is something that needs to change in the military.”
Retired Sgt. Michael Blais, who founded the Canadian Veterans Advocacy group, told CTV News Channel after reading the report that he is “encouraged” to see “benchmarks” have been identified showing “the suicide epidemic which is affecting both our veterans and our military.”
“I think the problem is a lot more serious than this report would let on,” Blais said. “But I’m encouraged by the fact that this report identifies benchmarks that people who (are more likely to) have sustained or been exposed to trauma are at risk, that those who have deployed are at risk.”
Blais said he recently lost a friend to suicide but that it can be prevented with professional help.
“If you have sustained a mental wound, it is vital that reach forward now,” he advised. “Don’t let that wound fester to a point where it results in a catastrophic incident.”
Blais said he met Canada’s new Defence Minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, before he was sworn in and they discussed mental health.
“I think we have an opportunity here, where we have a minister who has served, who understands the trauma that our young men and women have been exposed to and is very concerned,” Blais said.
Sajjan issued a statement after the release of the report that said he has asked the Chief of Defence Staff “to examine this issue as a priority.”
“The CAF has done much to address the barriers to care, including stigma, and provides excellent health care and support to its men and women in uniform,” Sajjan said. "However, I am concerned about the findings of the recent CAF report indicating an increased rate of suicide amongst CAF members.”
Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance said Tuesday that he has seen the report and is “concerned,” according to a Department of National Defence statement.
“The health and well-being of all Canadian Armed Forces members and their families is, as you know, my highest priority,” Vance said. “We already have an extensive suicide-prevention program in place, supported by highly capable and compassionate personnel, but clearly we must continually strive to improve.”
Vance urged those who think they or someone they know may need help to “get it now.”
“Go to your nearest Canadian Armed Forces health clinic or civilian emergency health-care centre,” Vance added. “All levels of the Canadian Armed Forces leadership and I support you. You are not alone.”
With a report from CTV Parliamentary Correspondent Richard Madan