Canadian Forces still grappling with the problem of solider suicides

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Canadian Forces still grappling with the problem of solider suicides

The number of suicides in Canada's military dropped sharply in 2012, a year after the end of the armed forces' combat mission in Afghanistan.

The Canadian Press says a Defence Department study produced in March showed 13 soldiers — 10 men and three women — killed themselves last year. That compares with 22 (21 men, one woman) who committed suicide in 2011. That figure was revised from 19, the number contained in an April 2012 report on military suicides.

According to the 2012 report, the number of suicides from 1995 to 2010 ranged from a seven to 13 a year before the spike in 2011.

"While this number is higher than previous years, it is important to note that suicide numbers vary from year to year and as is the case for any statistics, a variation can either be due to random patterns or indicate the beginning of an upward trend," says the report, adding the military looks at figures over a period of five years to determine if such a jump is unusual.

Despite the increased awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder, the March 2013 study determined that deployment to Kandahar, or anywhere else for that matter, was not a suicide risk factor, CP said.

"Suicide rates in the CF (Canadian Forces) did not increase over time, and after age standardization, they were lower that those in the Canadian population," the study says, according to CP.

The April 2012 report says much the same thing.

"No consistent relationship has been established between deployment and the risk of suicide," it says.

Soldiers undergo mental-health screening before being sent overseas and before returning to Canada participate in a five-day "third location decompression" where they're encouraged to speak to a mental health professional about any of their concerns, the report says.

[ Related: Mother of Canadian soldier who killed himself agrees inquiry can see suicide video ]

But as CP noted, the military's suicide figures covers active personnel (about 58,600 in 2011) and does not include reservists, who made up a large proportion of the Kandahar mission, nor veterans.

A 2011 study by Statistics Canada and the Defence Department found the suicide risk among discharged soldiers was one and a half times higher than the general male population, CP said. According to Statistics Canada data for 2009, the most recent year available, the suicide rate among Canadian males was 17.9 per 100,000, compared with 5.3 for females.

Armed forces around the world wrestle with the problem of soldier suicides.

Britain, whose military numbers roughly 205,000 active-service and 182,000 reserve personnel, experienced 21 soldier suicides in 2012, along with 29 veterans, BBC News reported.

The U.S. armed forces, which has about 1.4 million active and 850,000 reserve soldiers, last year recorded 350 suicides among active-duty personnel — more than it lost in Afghanistan and double the number of a decade ago, according to The New York Times. The figure has risen steadily over the last 12 years, the Times said, doubling in a decade.

[ Related: Concerned Facebook community prevents soldier’s suicide ]

Like Canada, U.S. research found deployment was not always a factor. Half of the suicide victims were never in Iraq or Afghanistan and 80 per cent never saw combat. However researchers are looking into the effect of multiple concussions — such as proximity to exploding road-side bombs — might have.

The Afghanistan experience spurred changes in the way the armed forces deal with mental health issues and suicide, with money for additional support programs. But attitudes within the military have been slower to change. Soldiers are still afraid getting help will harm their careers.

"I am hoping our culture changes and grows and becomes more open to emotional challenges and emotional issues," Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, the retiring commander of the Canadian Army, told CP. "I hope we are doing everything we can and should do to support our men and women in uniform."