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Nobody Knows Just How Big of a Problem Suicide Is in the Canadian Military

The new Liberal government is pledging to tackle suicides in the Canadian military, but a new report released this week shows that might be difficult — because nobody knows quite how large the problem is.

by Justin Ling
Nov 11 2015, 10:39pm

Image via Flickr Creative Commons

The new Liberal government is pledging to tackle suicides in the Canadian military, but a new report released this week shows that might be difficult — because nobody knows quite how large the problem is.

The report, conducted by the military's surgeon general, was released with a bold conclusion: "Suicide rates in the [Canadian Armed Forces] did not significantly increase over time, and … they were not statistically higher than those in the Canadian population."

That conclusion is at odds with both anecdotal and statistical evidence that suggests that the Forces are staring down a potentially-significant mental health crisis in the military.

A recent investigation by the Globe and Mail newspaper found that 59 military members and veterans committed suicide after serving in the 13-year Afghanistan mission — more than one-third if the total number of Canadian soldiers who died in the conflict.

While unreliable data stopped the report from concluding that the suicide rate is trending upwards for the military, tucked in the surgeon general's report appears to be a clear sign that the suicide rate in the Canadian Forces has lurched upwards in recent years.

Generally speaking, the mortality rate for active duty soldiers and veterans alike is lower than the general population — they are more likely to die of cancer, less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack and, generally speaking, less likely to commit suicide.

But the surgeon general found that between 2010 and 2011 (the last two years for which there is Canada-wide statistics on the issue), the trend reversed: Canadian Forces members were more than a third more likely to commit suicide than the civilian population.

The report finds that trend significantly more pronounced for members who were deployed overseas. Between 2005 and 2014, the report found that those who had been deployed, most likely to Afghanistan, were, on average, 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than those who had not been deployed. In the decade prior, the report found no difference between the two groups.

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Harjit Sajjan, Canada's new defence minister who is himself a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, released a statement in conjunction with the report underlining the stress that duty can have on families and the mental health issues that can come along with service.

"This is particularly relevant given our long combat mission in Afghanistan," he said. "I also know that the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] has done much to address the barriers to care, including stigma, and provides excellent health care and support to its men and women in uniform. However, I am concerned about the findings of the recent CAF report indicating an increased rate of suicide amongst CAF members."

Sajjan's statement added: "I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to examine this issue as a priority and to identify a way forward."

But the issue was also listed as a priority by the previous government, and it still remains virtually impossible to compile an accurate picture of just how big the problem is. A Globe & Mail investigation, which found that 59 returning Afghanistan veterans had committed suicide in recent years, had been frustrated by a lack of disclosure by the Canadian Forces. The numbers that the Globe was searching for were finally released on Tuesday, but remain incomplete.

When the Canadian Forces publishes suicide statistics, their numbers include only current service-members — meaning suicide statistics for veterans and discharged soldiers are not included.

A separate study found that more than 700 Canadian Forces personnel who had been released from the service had committed suicide between 1972 and 2006, which is more than 40 percent higher than the general population. That data, however, does not capture many of the Afghan veterans who released from service upon coming back to Canada.

Yet, the surgeon general writes that data showing a spike in the suicide rate over the last decade is "statistically non-significant," for a variety of reasons, largely based on the unreliability of accurate data.

For example, the report cites the suicide rate between 2005 and 2014 for Canadian Forces members with a history of deployment at 1.48 (meaning there was a 48 percent higher rate of suicide over members who were not deployed.) The range of possibility, however, goes from 0.98 to 2.22 — in other words, that the rate could be the same, or it could be more than twice as high. But, the report writes, the "the results are not statistically significant."

Ultimately, the report concludes that there does appear to be a correlation between deployment and suicide, adding that those who served in the army, especially those responsible for combat. It found that rate had climbed significantly since 2008.

One part of the study that looked at a small grouping of suicides from 2014. It found that the majority of those who took their lives either had failed or failing marriages or intimate partnerships. Surprisingly, less than half of those took their lives consulted mental health or counseling services, while just a quarter sought-out addiction services. Only a fraction of those sought help in the month before their suicide.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Image via Flickr user Virginia Guard Public Affairs