Sunday January 15, 2017

What it means when a killer is a veteran: views from two sides of the border

The last Canadians involved in the NATO training mission in Afghanistan board a U.S. Chinook helicopter as they leave the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan March 12, 2014.

The last Canadians involved in the NATO training mission in Afghanistan board a U.S. Chinook helicopter as they leave the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan March 12, 2014. (Master Cpl. Patrick Blanchard/Canadian Forces/Reuters)

Listen 14:41

On last week's show, we spoke with Ardath Whynacht, a sociology professor at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, about the media's initial framing of the recent murder/suicide in that province.

Whynacht questioned why the newsmedia focussed so heavily on Lionel Desmond's PTSD in the wake of the killings, and so little on violence against women and family violence. 

The narrative about PTSD being somehow responsible for this act moves us away from asking the important question. And I think the most important question is: what leads someone in great distress to take their distress out on others? - Ardath Whynacht, Mount Allison University

To Whynacht, the media missed an important opportunity to discuss the socialization of men, and the role of 'toxic masculinity' in family violence.

This week, the 180 heard from two veterans, one Canadian, one American, for their views on the media's role in stories about veterans, mental health, and violence.

Aaron Bedard, a Canadian Forces veteran with PTSD, says it was difficult to hear the initial news reports in the wake of the killings in Nova Scotia. 

It hit me right in my heart area, in my body. It just sunk me for a few days. - Aaron Bedard, Canadian Forces veteran

In contrast to the interview we aired last week, Bedard says the killings and suicide in Nova Scotia are an opportunity to push the government for specific improvements to veterans mental health care.

Bedard says he felt the media spent too much time on the emotional impact of the murder/suicide, and not enough time focusing on what government action has been taken on veteran mental health. 

I hope in the weeks ahead the media will get on track and have an attitude of: okay, here's a horrible incident and let's be responsible and make sure that this (is) an opportunity to shed some light on veterans dealing with PTSD... in order to make some very important tangible changes. - Aaron Bedard, Canadian Forces veteran

Meanwhile, in the United States, some veterans are critical of American media for their treatment of another act of violence, the Fort Lauderdale shooting.

To some veterans groups, the incident is an example of how careful media need to be in discussing cases of violence involving veterans with mental health issues.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, some media reported the killings in the context of PTSD, even though the suspect was never formally diagnosed. 

Bill Rausch, Executive Director of Got Your 6 —a veterans advocacy group based in Washington, DC — warns against blaming any incident involving a veteran, whether mentally unwell or not, on PTSD. 

Rausch says "we know Americans view veterans as either broken or heroic, this kind of dual narrative, which frankly is not only inaccurate but not helpful, as we transition."

For Rausch, the broader issue is mental health in America.

"Many Americans know about the twenty veterans who are dying by suicide every day, but very few know about the 117 Americans who die by suicide every day. So for us it's really important to educate and inform, and then really influence how we think about mental health, but also how we address it."

In Rausch's view - to simplify violence to any single cause can be inaccurate and fruitless. 

"Especially in the United States of America where we have so many mass shootings, to simplify it and say: they shot everyone because they're a veteran, or they shot everyone because they're a Muslim... if we don't have an honest accurate conversation it's going to continue and that's bad for everybody."