Feds unveil plan to help reduce number of military, veteran suicides

By The Canadian Press
October 5, 2017 - 9:00am

OTTAWA — The federal government is promising to improve the services and support available to military personnel and veterans in hopes of reducing the number of suicides among those who have served in uniform.

The initiatives are outlined in a new suicide prevention strategy released Thursday that follows concerns about the number of service members and veterans who have killed themselves in recent years.

They include retired corporal Lionel Desmond, an Afghan war veteran who sought treatment for PTSD before shooting and killing three family members in Nova Scotia and then taking his own life in January.

"Nobody has all the answers," Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said as he unveiled the new plan with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance.

"No strategy is going to solve all the problems. But this is a big step forward. This is about engaging everyone in a co-ordinated and collaborative effort to potentially save lives."

Yet while the new approach has been applauded by a cross-section of mental health associations and veterans' advocates, some are nonetheless unsure about how it will actually be implemented.

"The potential is outstanding," said Paul Hale, president of the PPCLI Association, which is comprised of former members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry regiment.

"I think it's laid a very good foundation. The hard part now is going to be putting the rubber to the road and actually starting to deliver."

More than 130 serving military personnel have taken their own lives since 2010, according to National Defence, including eight who died between January and August this year.

Officials say the military suicide rate is roughly the same as the general population, but there are exceptions: those who serve in the army, for example, are up to three times more likely to kill themselves.

Deployment into high-risk environments such as Afghanistan has also been shown to be a factor.

Vance described the military as a "family of families," and said even one suicide was too many.

"Every other family dealing with a suicide in their midst asks the same questions, tries to determine what happened, wants to find the reason, and we do too," he said. "We're not different from any other family."

The government doesn't know exactly how many veterans kill themselves each year, but previous studies have suggested they are more at risk than active members.

One of the first things the government plans to do is get a better handle on suicides among veterans, O'Regan said. "We need to get a better sense of the problem."

The suicide prevention strategy represents a rare level of co-operation between National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada, with a major focus on easing the transition to civilian life from a military career.

The two departments have been accused in the past of letting service members fall through the cracks during what is often an extremely stressful point in the life of a soldier.

The criticisms have particularly focused on the difficulties many service members face when physical or psychological injuries force them to retire, as family members say happened to Desmond.

"We have a large number of veterans from recent conflicts that simply were either failing in their transition, or we were failing them in their transition," Vance acknowledged.

The strategy includes talking to soldiers much earlier in their careers about post-military life and staying in contact after they have retired.

It also promises to increase the amount of support for the families of veterans and ensure military personnel have support services lined up before they retire.

There are plans to boost mental resilience among those in uniform, better detect those at risk, improve recruit screening for mental-health problems and hire more mental-health specialists.

"Zero is the target. There can be no other number, and no other number is acceptable to us," Vance said.

"Many will say that's impossible. That's okay if they say that. But we cannot approach this with any other target in mind."

The new strategy has been endorsed by a variety of different groups, including the Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

But military ombudsman Gary Walbourne said the devil will be in the details, noting for example that National Defence and Veterans Affairs have struggled for years to hire mental-health workers.

The ombudsman and others also worried that military personnel and veterans will continue to struggle to access some benefits and services unless the government changes its policies.

"I'm hearing good talk," Walbourne said. "But I'm a little bit stuck on: Are we just going to put more people into the same processes that we've always used?"

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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