By Shaun Francis
March 10, 2014
Last month, I spent a weekend in the Gatineau Hills training for the upcoming True Patriot Love Expedition to the Magnetic North Pole, which aims to raise awareness of the physical and mental injuries that continue to impact Canadian soldiers.
In the months leading up to our training mission, the Canadian Forces have experienced nine soldier’s suicides. The deaths provide the expedition with a special significance. Our soldier team captain, Dave Quick, is a decorated former lieutenant colonel who knew two of the dead personally. And hearing our soldier team recount their stories reminded us all that our years in Afghanistan left our fighting men and women with injuries that are mental as well as physical.
As a co-chair of the expedition, and the chair of True Patriot Love, I’m concerned about the way our country’s civilians have been interpreting these recent tragedies.
It’s true that when we send people away to dangerous places they get hurt. Most of the physical injuries are pretty obvious — they’re manifested in a limp, a paralyzed arm, an absent limb. The mental injuries are less obvious, but no less harmful or prevalent.
The Canadian Forces studied a battle group out of CFB Gagetown — surveying the 792 members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment four years after the group had served in Afghanistan. The survey revealed that 23.1% of the soldiers were being treated for mental health issues, four years after their deployment. And approximately 20% had been diagnosed with PTSD.
It’s easy to blame the soldier suicides on the Afghanistan mission, and PTSD. Just like it’s easy to blame deficiencies in mental health care provided by the Canadian Forces. The trouble is, the reality is more complicated.
As noted in the Surgeon-General’s Mental Health Strategy, the second-most frequent cause of death for Canadian men aged 15 to 34 is suicide. Suicide is a societal problem. Suicide rates in the Canadian Forces are lower than those in the general population. Sadly, the U.S. Army’s suicide rate has doubled over the last decade. Ours have stayed stable since 1996 — thanks at least in part to the excellent men and women who work in our military’s health services. We’d prefer that our military not have any suicides. But they do happen, and sometimes they cluster together. And when they do happen in the Canadian Forces, it is not always due to Afghanistan, or PTSD.
A report on the 38 suicides that happened in calendar years 2011 and 2012 found that only 50% of the cases had deployed in support of the mission in Afghanistan. Of the Canadian Forces members who had sought help for mental health disorders before their suicides, the two most common diagnoses were major depression and substance abuse, each of which affected 21.1% of the cases. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was third, at 18.5%. And relationship failure or conflict was identified as a precipitating factor in nearly half of the CF personnel who died by suicide during that time period.
To suggest the suicides are caused by Afghanistan and PTSD is not only inaccurate — it’s harmful on several levels. This perception marginalizes soldiers who haven’t yet deployed but still suffer from mental illness. Criticizing the military’s capacity to provide its soldiers with psychological care may lead other soldiers to avoid seeking help for nascent and still treatable mental health disorders. Finally, portraying suicides hand-in-hand with PTSD and Afghanistan reinforces stereotypes that our soldiers aren’t able to function effectively and may be irreparably harmed after their deployment. This simply isn’t the case.
The vast majority of our soldiers don’t have PTSD. With proper treatment, most of those who do have PTSD have the potential to continue their careers as high-functioning individuals in the Forces or civilian employment. The greater danger is that civilians don’t go the extra mile to help these men and women transition to purposeful work in the private sector — because of perceptions that the veterans may bring their problems with them.
It’s tempting to criticize and point fingers in the wake of this spate of suicides. But Canadian Forces personnel have access to what’s likely the most comprehensive health program in Canada. Rather than focusing on blame, perhaps we should consider whether we’ve done enough to recognize the sacrifices made by members of our military and their families.
That’s what the True Patriot Love Expedition to the Magnetic North Pole is all about. We’ll depart in late April with a team composed of injured military veterans and Canadian business leaders. Some of our vets have operational stress injuries. Others were wounded physically. Landing in ski-equipped Twin Otter planes on Arctic ice one degree south of the Pole, we’ll spend the next 12 days cross-country skiing to our objective. And along the way our 24 corporate leader team members will get to know the 12 injured soldiers, and the sacrifices they’ve made to serve our country.
At one point during our training mission, one of the soldiers mistook the guy next to me for just another soldier. In fact, he was a prominent CEO. To me this was the highlight of the weekend. When we trek to the Pole and keep our minds focused on the goal, we will ski not as soldiers or CEOs, but as Canadians. One team, united, as it should be.
Shaun Francis is the chair of the True Patriot Love Foundation, which supports the needs of Canada’s military men and women, and their families