Canadian peacekeepers feeling 'helpless' to act could face PTSD

Peacekeeping comes with its own set of mental health challenges for soldiers, who must face the frustrating rules of engagement that may limit the actions they can take, as was the case in Rwanda.

Trudeau government to send up to 600 troops abroad for peacekeeping missions

The Trudeau government announced it will send up to 600 troops abroad for peacekeeping. Yet some have expressed concerns about whether the Canadian troops will be prepared for some of the mental health challenges that come with those missions. (AFP/Getty Images)

Former Canadian peacekeeper Jean-Yves St-Denis says that more than 20 years after his mission in Rwanda, he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and hasn't overcome feelings of guilt, feelings of being useless.

"That is something that carries on with you for a long long time even when you return to a normal life," said the retired captain, who as part of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), specialized in logistics and supply-chain management.

The Trudeau government recently announced that Canada will be sending up to 600 troops and around 150 police officers on peacekeeping mission in the near future. It's still unclear when or where the Canadian soldiers will be deployed, but places like South Sudan, Congo, Mali and the Central African Republic have all been mentioned as possibilities.

Yet St-Denis said he's concerned about whether those soldiers will be mentally prepared before they are deployed.

He certainly wasn't before he was sent to Rwanda in April 1994, where he experienced first-hand the genocide that haunts him to this day. He was changed by the experience, became distant from his family when he returned and couldn't shake the nightmares, images of corpses and smell of death. In 1997, he was diagnosed with PTSD. 

'We live with it'

"Soldiers have to be trained through and through and with psychologists before they go to ascertain their capability to handle real ugly things," he said. Unfortunately, that kind of training wasn't provided at the time of the Rwanda mission.

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, the number of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder has almost tripled in the last eight years. In 2007, 5,548 vets were diagnosed with PTSD, according to a parliamentary committee report. That number jumped to 14,375 as of March 2015.

But peacekeeping missions come with their own unique set of mental health challenges for soldiers, who must face frustrating rules of engagement that may limit the actions they can take — as was the case in Rwanda. Those frustrations can turn to feelings of guilt, as they did with St-Denis, and ultimately lead to PTSD.

"We were feeling helpless, and we were wondering what do we do when we encounter events that would require a bit of muscle to solve," St-Denis said. "Soldiers want to help, they want to do everything that's positive, and when they feel restrained or limited, that's a very difficult emotion to deal with when you come back."

Dr. Ken Welburn, clinical director of the Ottawa Anxiety and Trauma Clinic, said peacekeeping can be traumatic for soldiers who have the skills and tools to act but are unable to do so.

"If circumstances don't allow you to do anything and you have to stand there and watch it unfold, you're way more likely to have PTSD," he said. "Your hands are tied in a lot of ways."

Welburn said he expects there will be cases of PTSD for the Canadians who are deployed on these missions, but he believes that over the past 15 years there's been a growing recognition by the military that it needs to prepare people to deal with the difficult things they witness.

Currently, troops deployed for combat missions are provided with mental health training known as the Road To Mental Readiness. But that training could be adapted for the soldiers who will head off on upcoming peacekeeping missions, said Julie McDonald, a public affairs officer in the health services group of the department of National Defence.

Welburn said that training should include discussions with people who have been on similar missions, some of the effects it had on them, and how they managed. 

Marvin Westwood, a psychologist and founder of the Veterans Transition Program, said there are actions that can be taken in the field to help troops cope with what they have seen and the experiences that have left them feeling helpless.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, left and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that Canada is ready to provide money and troops for peacekeeping missions around the world. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"Talking about it is a very positive kind of self regulation or stress-management technique," he said. "They call it 'unloading the baggage' of what they picked up in the mission."

St-Denis agreed that peacekeeping soldiers need to seek help immediately, talking about their experiences, either while they are abroad or upon their return.

"Talk about it with your colleagues. Do that as soon as possible," he said. "Seeking help doesn't mean you're sick. Talking about it is normal." 


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.