1 in 6 soldiers affected by alcohol-related or mental health issues

Nearly one in six full-time members of the Canadian Forces experienced symptoms of mental health or alcohol-related disorders over several months in 2013, a Statistics Canada survey suggests.

Statistics Canada's Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey involved 6,700 full-time members

Mental health survey of soldiers

9 years ago
Duration 2:21
A new survey suggests nearly 1 in 6 Canadian Forces members had experienced symptoms of a mental health or alcohol-related disorder in the last year

Nearly one in six full-time members of the Canadian Forces experienced symptoms of mental health or alcohol-related disorders over several months last year, a Statistics Canada survey suggests.

The Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey measured symptoms of six mental health or alcohol-related disorders in close to 6,700 full-time members of the Canadian Forces. The survey was conducted from April to August 2013.

The most common disorder reported was a major depressive episode, with eight per cent of full-time members reporting symptoms in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Depression was defined in the survey as at least two weeks of persistent depressed mood or loss of interest in normal activities along with other symptoms, including lower energy, loss of appetite, hopelessness or suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were reported in more than five per cent of full-time members, while just under five per cent reported experiencing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

A Statistics Canada release about the survey defined PTSD symptoms as persisting for a minimum of one month and including a reliving of a traumatic event or injury, disturbance of day-to-day activities, avoidance, irritability, outbursts of anger and difficulty sleeping, while generalized anxiety disorder was defined as a pattern of frequent, persistent worry or excessive anxiety lasting at least six months.

Other symptoms reported in the survey included:

  • Panic disorder (3.4 per cent), defined as recurrent, unexpected panic attacks in the absence of real danger.
  • Alcohol abuse (2.5 per cent), characterized by a pattern of recurrent alcohol abuse where the sufferer either fails to perform at work, school or home, uses in physically hazardous situations, or suffers recurrent alcohol related problems, and continues to use despite social or interpersonal problems. 
  • Alcohol dependence (two per cent), characterized by repeated use of alcohol leading to at least three of these effects in a 12-month period: increased tolerance, withdrawal, increased consumption, inability to quit drinking, lost time due to recovery, reduced activity and continued use despite ill effects.

Statistics Canada interviewed full-time Forces members on military bases in each province and territory.

Participants were selected based on a random sample of the total population of full-time Canadian Forces members. A margin of error could not be stated. 

Further analysis to be released 

Further analysis will be released in November this year, including the findings from 1,500 reservists who were also interviewed for the survey. 

The study was conducted in collaboration with the Department of National Defence to get a better sense of the burden of mental health on soldiers, said Col. Rakesh Jetly, chief psychiatrist for the Canadian Forces.

​Given that the survey released today only contains raw data on mental illness in soldiers, Jetly said it is more important to find out what the source of illness is, Jetly said. 

"The number itself is such a raw number. I think it's more important to find out what that number means," Jetly said. 

"Are they getting care? If so, how is the care going? Are they at work? Are they absent? What is the quality of life like at home, and so on. As we further analyze the data over the next couple of years, we're going to get more of that rich kind of information." 

Stigma still surrounds mental illness

The stigma surrounding mental health issues continues to be a barrier for soldiers in need of support, said Dale Hamilton, a veteran of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. 

"There's obviously a stigma, it's a disappearing stigma around mental health issues, but it's still there," Hamilton said. 

"I worry about problems with my future employment if, say, I wanted to apply for a federal job. Will that come back and bite me? And I think a ton of guys are wary of that." 

More needs to be done to change a culture within the military that discourages soldiers from speaking up, Hamilton said. 

"There absolutely has to be something done that makes guys aware that they don't have to go through this alone. They don't have to climb into a bottle or avoid any of these issues," Hamilton said. 

Struggle to hire mental health workers

Red tape and a shallow applicant pool are hindering the military's efforts to hire mental health service workers, according to the chief of military personnel.

In emails obtained through Access to Information, Lt.-Gen. David Millar, who at the time of the correspondence was a Major-General, warns Deputy Minister Richard Fadden that a lengthy hiring process and a lack of eligible applicants is hampering the hiring process.

"Any one applicant will have their name in with many employers and will jump from one to the next during the process taking the best offer. This is where the competition comes in," he wrote to Fadden on Jan. 11.

"In a more general sense, the demand for MH [mental health] practitioners is on the rise across Canada," Millar adds.

Since the writing of these emails, a spokesperson for the Department of Defence said in a statement that recruiting has paid off and it is close to meeting the hiring requirements. Including filling 50 of the 54 positions needed to meet its baseline requirement of 447 health services workers. 

According to the emails, the military wants to hire 87 more full-time health services workers, to support additional programs and requirements.

With files from Kristen Everson, Tom Parry, and Margo Mcdiarmid