A Strategy of Hope
Nov 27, 2017

The weight of the enormous number of suicides by Canadian Forces members after serving in Afghanistan (at least 130 since 2010 reports CBC), reinforced by a Globe and Mail series about military suicide, resulted in a pledge of action by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015. That pledge has resulted in the Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy, announced at a press conference in October 2017 (shown below from left) by General Jonathan Vance, Chief of Defence Staff; Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan; and Veterans Minister Seamus O’Regan. 

The big message of the strategy is that Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Forces will be working much more closely together to understand and prevent suicide among military members and veterans. The underlying and mostly unspoken message, delivered in a 160-point list of actions, is that suicide in the Canadian Forces is still not well understood. 

So many organizations exist to help, but nothing can be done until someone reaches out.

Until recently, Canadian Forces commanders were somewhat insulated from suicide by a barrier of silence. No publicity meant no problem. Gaps in the ranks were quickly filled, and units carried on. The difficult topic of suicide became simply – and literally – unheard of.

In time, the world too moved on, forcing the military to face the human toll of some of its policies. Changing attitudes, and a new era of highly public and rapid communications has changed the extent of public awareness, and the topic of suicide now has the full attention of senior leadership. Some components of the suicide prevention plan make sense, like training Military Police to deal with people in crisis, but in most other cases the points in the plan bear only indirectly on the issue of suicide. Clearly, the leadership asked for lots of action items, and their organizations produced them. 

More and better research is indicated – and researchers would be hard pressed to find a better organization to study than the Canadian Armed Forces. At intake, each recruitmust pass a series of physical and psychological barriers before being accepted. Canadian Forces members at entry are physically and mentally fit. Comprehensive medical and training records are maintained to common standards, and performance reviews are regular and thorough. A great deal is known about each serving member, and even more is known when records are aggregated and categorized. Yet no easy answers have so far emerged. As in the civilian world, some individuals with suicidal tendencies signal their pain sufficiently to get assistance, but others conceal their wounds until they are beyond the reach of help.

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Members often credit Soldier On with empowering them to adapt and re-integrate with local, community-based activities, and then remain active for life.

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There are obvious stress factors in military service, even in the absence of a prolonged combat mission like Afghanistan, but very few military members can be shocked when their service puts strains on their relationships or sends them into situations they would rather avoid. And there are clear offsetting benefits. Canadian Forces members make good money, get excellent training, and their conditions of employment are clearly understood before signing up. In recent years, the military has systematically eliminated social barriers. For example, within a relatively brief number of years, homosexuality has gone from meriting instant dismissal to complete acceptance. There are strenuous efforts to manage careers so families spend more time together. Even the universality of service rule is under review, so members may not be forced into retirement, even if they have no prospects of ever being deployable.

In many military units, members depend upon one another for their personal safety. Their lives are literally in each other’s hands, and because of this, few other relationships can hold the same deep understanding, which can sometimes create an unintended barrier. Still, even close colleagues are shocked when friends take their own lives. In a ship or company or squadron, death by suicide inevitably inflicts severe stress on all members. 

The women or men who take their own lives have sacrificed equally to earn their place within the unit and undergone the same experiences as their comrades. Within every afflicted unit, someone must step in or up to take that person’s place. For their parts, commanders are judged by results – they must make the unit “whole” once again.

In a military chain of command, officers are responsible first and foremost for the availability of personnel under their command. Maintaining fitness, training, equipment and mental health are not goals in themselves, but necessary activities for delivering an effect. Suicide prevention is a component of those responsibilities, but short of living 24-hours-a-day inside other people’s heads, leadership can only deliver the programs they are provided with. They cannot deliver results. 

Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS)
Having an OSI can be difficult. You may avoid family and friends, or stop doing things that you once enjoyed. You may feel guilt or frustration because you cannot cope with your physical or mental health concerns. Your family may also start to adapt their behaviours, moods and routines to yours, leading to possible burnout. Any of these can manifest as compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, substance abuse, anger, depression, and isolation.

There is a community around you that is going through what you are right now. OSISS can help you tap into our community for its compassion, wisdom, and experience. 

Your first step is to contact a Peer Support Coordinator: www.cfmws.com/en/AboutUs/DCSM/OSISS/Contact/Pages/default.aspx

While senior officials and officers insist that the goal is to eliminate suicide completely (“one is too many”), they concede that it is impossible. 
Another aspect – the importance of restoring a unit’s morale and effectiveness after a suicide – is only faintly addressed in the Suicide Prevention Strategy. 

Grinding and sifting through the data about people who have committed suicide may produce good information about the circumstances that led to their decision and, in some cases, there may be written or spoken evidence as to their reasons. In many cases, emotional or physical distress, the actions of others, or accumulated hardships have contributed to the final act of suicide – but the vast majority of Canadian Forces members undergo identical experiences and carry on. It is baffling to those trying to make a difference. 

The biggest frustration is that while help is only a phone call away in many cases, too many resist the urge to seek help until it is too late.

The factors that lead to suicide may remain locked inside the minds of those struggling individuals, beyond the reach of leadership and, all too often, beyond hope. Only one person can commit suicide and only one person can prevent it, although anyone can become the lifeline that disrupts the cycle of dispair. We must all keep trying – because some day, something may work for that one individual. 

Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based FrontLine writer. 

Many good and caring people tackle this dilemma every day. FrontLine would like to hear your story (contact: chris@frontline.online)

Nov 2016 – a suicide toll reveals how often the system failed Canada’s soldiers and veterans https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/investigations/number-of-soldiers-vets-who-died-by-suicide-after-afghanistan-on-rise/article32673192/