Military suicide, stigma targeted by veterans group at vigils

Military veterans and their supporters held vigils across four provinces on Sunday to support military families who have lost someone to suicide while talking about ways to put an end to it.

Honouring our Canadian Soldiers group supports military families who have lost members to suicide

One of the attendees of a vigil to honour soldiers who died by suicide salutes after placing a candle near a commemorative plaque and tree at Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Military veterans and their supporters held vigils across four provinces on Sunday to support military families who have lost someone to suicide, and talked about ways to put an end to it.

The non-profit group Honouring our Canadian Soldiers (HOCS) organized ceremonies at Royal Canadian Legions in Thunder Bay, Ont., Waterloo, Que., Oromocto, N.B., and Debert, N.S., on Sunday, along with another at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa.

One of the organizers of the event in Ottawa said they want to show families of soldiers who have died by suicide and military members struggling with mental health that they're not forgotten and not alone.

"[Families] are going through such a hard thing with their lives, such a hurt in their heart that none of us can imagine, really," said Sherry Duplessis, a veteran and volunteer with HOCS.

"It's hard enough to lose [a family member] in battle, but to lose them after the battle… and to lose them when they're back here, when they think they're safe, that's really hard on them."

Don't be afraid to talk

Duplessis said a big way to help people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues is to not be afraid to talk about suicide and the help that's available.

"We need to say the word 'suicide.' We need to tell not only soldiers, but we're talking about firefighters and police and EMS, you guys are all going through a hard, hard job, but it's OK to talk about it," she said.

"It's OK to find somebody to help you out and it's OK to remain here on Earth because we can help you. Everyone can help if we all get together on this."

Duplessis said the group's goal is to keep adding vigils until every province has one and, eventually, to make enough progress to transform the vigils into events that talk about the help people are getting, not the people who are dying.

Minister says action coming soon

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr was one of the people who came to the Ottawa ceremony and laid a candle with the name and picture of a military member or veteran who had died by suicide.

Candles with the name and picture of military personnel or veterans who have died by suicide sit on a table at Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

He said governments have been slow to move on mental health issues in general, but that he and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have "a bunch of initiatives" in the works to support soldiers and veterans.

"We have a secretariat right now looking into a host of the initiatives we're doing and where we're not doing as well as we can," he said.

"We'll wait for some of those reports to come in, but we want to get this right, not get it rushed, and we want to lay a groundwork for years to come."

Hehr mentioned a new military centre for excellence focused on mental health, which was brought up in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's mandate letter to him.

That letter also mentioned a suicide prevention strategy for Canadian Armed Forces personnel and veterans as one of both his and Sajjan's top priorities.