Leaving armed forces can create a deadly loss of identity, says top military psychiatrist

Dr. Alexandra Heber says there are 11 dedicated mental health clinics across Canada for veterans, but the mother of a soldier who committed suicide in Vancouver says he had trouble finding help.
Master Cpl. Joseph Allina during one of three tours in Afghanistan before he retired from the military in 2016. The 35-year-old killed himself in July after struggling with PTSD. (Submitted by Sandra Weissinger)

Young veterans leaving the forces are at the highest risk of suicide, says the chief psychiatrist overseeing their care in Canada.

And a suicide prevention strategy released last year to address this crucial period was not enough to save Master Cpl. Joseph Allina, who took his life in front of the Seaforth Armoury in Vancouver last month. He had retired from the armed forces in 2016 and was a day shy of his 36th birthday when he died.

"This points to the importance of that transition period," Veterans Affairs Canada chief psychiatrist Dr. Alexandra Heber told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn on Wednesday.

"We know that's a time in people's lives where their identity as a military member is something they're losing. It's a time of vulnerability."

A major study by Veteran Affairs Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces concluded last year that veterans are committing suicide in Canada at a much higher rate than the general population. 

"One of the striking figures that came out of that study was younger men who served less time in the military were at the highest risk," said Heber. "The suicide prevention strategy we launched last year has a special focus on the transition period."

Dr. Alexandra Heber believes that civilian psychiatrist in the military have a very good understanding of what military members go through. (CBC)

Specialized support

When Allina's mother Sandra Weissinger spoke publicly about the death of her son, she said he found it challenging to find adequate mental health services.

The lack of specialized support for veterans transitioning to civilian life is an issue that has been raised by National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman Gary Walbourne before.

For years, Walbourne says he's been trying to get a policy in place that will better support veterans.

"This type of expertise is a little limited in the country and that may pose some restrictions," Walbourne told CBC earlier this week.

However, Heber notes that there are 11 specialized mental health clinics across the country for veterans. She says that each of those clinics has smaller satellite clinics and telehealth services, in order to reach veterans in remote areas.

"I don't know what services [Joseph Allina] was accessing, whether or not he was a client of Veteran Affairs, but I know that if he was a client, these services would have been made available to him," said Heber.

And when it comes to the question of whether a civilian mental health professional can adequately relate to the specific challenges faced by combat soldiers, Heber says the professionals she's worked with in the forces "have a very good understanding of what military members go through."

Task Force

Heber recognizes there's room for improvement when it comes to psychiatric support for veterans and soldiers, but says her team is on the right track.

She says that together with the Canadian Armed Forces, Veteran's Affairs has set up a transition task force that will focus on the delicate phase when members leave the military.

You can listen to the full interview below;

The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn spoke with Veterans Affairs Canada chief psychiatrist, Dr Alexandra Heber about mental health support for veterans. 11:52

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free: 1-833-456-4566
Text: 45645
Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre