Military's mental health system 'abandoned' CFB Shilo soldier

A soldier says mental health care at Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba has been 'a nightmare for me and other patients.' Among other things, the base has been without a psychiatrist for three months.

Medical staff vacancies and suicide attempts highlight holes in treatment

A soldier says mental health care at Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba has been 'a nightmare for me and other patients.' Among other things, the base has been without a psychiatrist for three months. 2:09

Mental health care at Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba has been "a nightmare for me and other patients," a soldier says. Among other things, the base has been without a psychiatrist for three months.

In those three months, the soldier — who CBC News is calling "Smith" to protect his identity — has attempted suicide.

"I didn't really know what to do or where to go, other than that I felt just that maybe the world would be a better place without me. Maybe my family would be better off without me. Maybe the military would be better off without me," he said.

Smith battles anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. It began in 2008, following a combat mission in Afghanistan. His tour had the highest number of casualties.

"You're surrounded by death, carnage, things you can't even fathom," he said.

This Canadian Forces soldier, who CBC News is calling 'Smith' to protect his identity, says he's attempted suicide in the three months since the psychiatrist at CFB Shilo left. (CBC)
"You're exposed to the enemy every time you leave the wire…. It's that transition when you get home, how to transition into normal life, when you're used to nothing but an adrenaline rush."

This isn't the first time Smith has been left without care. When he first returned home to Canada, he faced a seven-month wait for a psychiatrist.

"That's when my symptoms started coming out really bad. I was heavily involved in alcohol, and that seemed to be my self-medication, so to speak," he said. "That and driving a car fast — anything to get that adrenaline rush back that I had in Afghanistan."

"I had to attempt my life several times to get the help that I needed," he added. "That's what it really took for them to sit down and come up with a game plan for me."

Suicides put spotlight on mental health

Smith knows he was close to becoming a statistic.

A string of soldier suicides that began hitting headlines last November brought the issue of military mental health to the forefront. 

In 72 hours in November 2013, three Afghanistan war veterans died by suicide. Two had ties to CFB Shilo.

Three more Canadian soldiers killed themselves in January. By March, the number had climbed to eight.

According to the Department of National Defence, since 2004 the military has lost more men and women to suicide on Canadian soil than it did to combat in Afghanistan.

In the past 12 months, the Canadian Forces has made strides to improve mental health services.

The federal government says it spends $38.6 million every year to provide mental health care to military members. In 2012, an additional $11.4 million was invested to recruit professionals to reduce wait times.

Number of men and women who have accessed Canadian Forces Base Shilo's mental health services:

  • 2012 — 496
  • 2013 — 453
  • 2014 — 447 (January to October)

Source: CFB Shilo

In an email, a CFB Shilo spokesperson told CBC News, "Efforts have been made within the unit in the last year to prioritize funding for mental health programs, to maximize training opportunities for mental health clinicians, to increase our capacity with current evidence-based treatments, and to occupy staff vacancies."

CFB Shilo could not provide specific examples of any changes, but the fact there are staff vacancies indicates there are gaps in treatment. Positions for a mental health nurse and a part-time social worker remain vacant, and the only base psychiatrist left in July.

'There was no warning'

Smith said he had been seeing that base psychiatrist for years. One day he showed up for an appointment and she was gone.

"There was no warning, nothing," he said. "It made me feel abandoned…. This is the military. They should have back-up plans."

He added, "You have two front-line combat units. You should have more than one psychiatrist on that base."

It took Smith months to find a new doctor, hours away in Winnipeg.

"It was a nightmare for me and other patients because now we're forced to go and try and find another doctor and psychiatrist and tell them our life story all over again, and re-experience that trauma of explaining our story all over again to someone new that we don't know," he said.

Michael Blais, president of the group Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said he's heartbroken to hear there have been suicide attempts by Smith and potentially others during this time.

"It's painful for me to hear this," he said. "God forbid we lose someone else... because of this situation."

Blais does credit the Canadian Forces for fast-tracking the hiring of mental health staff, noting that 50 new hires have been made across the country in the past year.

Blais said he has also been working to encourage mental health professionals to relocate to remote communities such as Shilo.

However, he said the military's hands are tied when it comes to resources and government funding. 

"I think the minister, [Rob] Nicholson, should step up, accept the problem as it is and recognize that we have high concentration of troops that have been exposed to military trauma within Shilo and that whatever it takes, whatever enticements are required, must be applied," he said.

"It's important that as more and more mental wounds emerge that we have more additional resources than we have right now."

Blais said excellent help is out there. It's just a matter of being able to wait for it.

But Smith said that's not good enough.

"They need to beef it up," he said.

"For what we've done for our country, we deserve the best care that our government can provide."