By Jordan Finkelstein
The suicide rate among Canadian soldiers is at one of the highest peaks in the last decade.
According to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) 19 soldiers took their own life in 2014 while serving in the military. Of the 19 suicides, male regular force soldiers account for 16 deaths and reservists account for three. No female members of the CAF committed suicide in 2014.
In comparison, there were 13 suicides among soldiers the year before. National Defense statistics dating back to 2004 show there were more suicides among soldiers only in 2011 and 2009.
Still, the suicide rate among the general public has been higher than the military since that time. Over a five-year span, there was an average of 19 suicides per 100,000 regular force male soldiers, while the general population has had an average of 56 suicides per 100,000. According to Statscan’s Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey, many of the suicides have been attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and untreated mental illness.
Chris Stickland, an infantry soldier of Canadian Armed Forces 3rd Battalion, served in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2011. During that time, Stickland said he suffered from PTSD.
“I resorted to drugs and alcohol,” said Stickland. “I felt cornered, I felt my family was far away. I felt there was only one way out.”
Stickland said the mental health of a soldier is the most important factor of surviving a war.
“When I was discharged, for admitting my drug and alcohol addiction, Veteran Affairs took over,” he said. “I got the help I needed. Psychotherapy started and I was able to work through my addiction and eventually my PTSD.”
The Canadian military has had more suicides than combat deaths since beginning their tenure in Afghanistan in 2002. Within that 12-year span, there were 158 Canadian Forces deaths attributed to combat and 178 deaths attributed to suicide. Dr. Lynn Cockburn, an occupational science and occupational therapy professor at University of Toronto, said treatment like cognitive behavior therapy could help lower the amount of suicides in the future.
“Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been proven to be very effective for people in high-stress environments,” said Cockburn. “The therapy involves intervention that helps people reflect on their thoughts and how those thoughts impact their behavior. If you’re in an environment where you don’t feel safe that can often lead to emotional instability.”
According to a Department of National Defense report on suicide in the Canadian Forces, there was no significant increase in suicide rates between 1995 and 2012. The military is taking steps to actively deal with mental-health issues, such as opening new operational stress injury clinics and military family resource centres. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has urged the military to utilize resources like the clinics to seek help for mental illness. He is also an advocate of Bell Let’s Talk, a campaign aimed at crushing the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide.
“Some people need medication, some need therapy,” said Cockburn. “Each case needs to be handled uniquely. Everyone deals with mental health issues differently. That’s why during treatment people must take the time to get to know the person, rather than the diagnosis.”
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, one in five Canadians experience mental health issues every year and it costs the economy roughly $50-Billion. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians aged 15-34.