Liberal government to track veteran suicides as part of new prevention strategy

The Liberal government is looking to develop a more comprehensive picture of how many veterans take their own lives after leaving the military.

Suicides among soldiers and veterans have been growing concern since end of Afghan war

The federal government will begin tracking suicides by former Canadian Armed Forces members as part of a new suicide prevention strategy. (Canadian Forces)

The Liberal government is looking to develop a more comprehensive picture of how many veterans take their own lives after leaving the military.

Getting better data on the scope of the tragedies is one of the pillars of a suicide prevention strategy released on Thursday by National Defence and Veteran Affairs Canada.

Suicides among soldiers and veterans has been a growing concern since the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Since 2010, 130 soldiers have taken their lives, according to National Defence statistics.

"We know each other. We know each other well. We feel every hurt. We feel every suicide, just like any other family," said Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff.

Over the past decade or more, the military has been closely tracking and analyzing suicides within the ranks, but Veterans Affairs has struggled to keep track of deaths once a soldier, sailor or aircrew member takes off their uniform.

"We have to do better," said newly appointed Veterans Minister Seamus O'Regan. "We recognize the dire need for a suicide-prevention strategy."

"It is difficult for me. It is difficult for our department. It is difficult for all Canadians to hear that our military men and woman and our veterans are taking their own lives."

Starting in December, Veterans Affairs, in conjunction with Statistics Canada, will begin reporting on the rates of suicides among veterans, something the U.S. has been attempting to do with various studies for years.

"Having the data may help us pinpoint exactly where we have to put certain efforts," said a senior veterans official, speaking on background prior to the release of the strategy. 

"It will help us to better understand what is going on, because today we don't know."

Federal governments — both Liberal and Conservative — have poured millions of dollars per year into operational stress injury clinics across the country and counseling support.

Understanding how many suicides are taking place and where will make a big difference.

"We receive resources to put somewhere and we put it based on geographic location and a critical mass of veterans," the official said. "There's an analysis done from a megadata point of view of where we should put our resources, but I really don't know if I'm putting them in the right places sometimes." 

The previous Conservative government was asked repeatedly why veteran suicides were not being tracked, and the answer was that it was too difficult to collect the information, because ex-soldiers and their medical files are scattered across the country and their care was under provincial jurisdiction.

'It's not working'

A former soldier who has long argued for a closer examination of the effectiveness of veterans programs was frustrated. 

"The fact that I'm still burying my friends long after the war shows that it's not working," said retired corporal Glen Kirkland, of Brandon, Man., who was wounded in Afghanistan.

"They need to not just do some more stats, but maybe actually reach out and see what the soldiers need."

A similar message was delivered at the unveiling of the strategy by retired general Walt Natynczyk, the former chief of the defence staff who is now deputy minister at veterans affairs.

He made a personal appeal to all soldiers and veterans to reach out and keep an eye on their former "battle buddies" who might be suffering mental health issues. 

The new strategy acknowledges the factors that lead up to someone taking their life are complex, and the steps outlined Thursday will not "prevent every suicide." But the intention will be "to reduce risks" and increase "resilience among our comrades and loved ones."

Vance said he is intent on reducing military-related suicides to zero.

"That's our target. There is no other acceptable target for us. No other number is acceptable to us. Many will say it's impossible. That's OK that they say that, but we cannot approach it with any other target in mind."

Brewster on Military's Suicide Prevention Strategy

6 years ago
Duration 2:32
CBC Reporter Murray Brewster's National story on the Canadian Forces' new suicide prevention strategy

The suicide rate among serving members of the military, according to Canadian Forces Health Services data, is not much higher than the general population.

But the research already on hand suggests that suicidal thoughts among those who have been released to civilian life is 10 per cent higher than the average Canadian.

And for the moment, health-care providers and those designing support programs can only speculate.

"We have less comprehensive information about veterans available to us, but we are working to improve our knowledge of the veteran community," said the strategy.

Chronic conditions

"Based on the information available, it would seem that suicide can be more common among veterans as compared to the Canadian population."

The strategy says the fact that veterans think about taking their own life more often "is not surprising, because the great majority of veterans participating in VAC programs have chronic physical or mental health conditions, and it is well established that people with health problems have higher rates of suicidality."

The strategy, which is laden with endorsements, goes on to highlight many of the initiatives and expenditures the Liberal government has already introduced, including the reopening of nine regional veterans affairs offices closed by the former Conservative government.

More face-to-face interaction will help reduce the sense of isolation some veterans feel, the document suggests.

It also contains a proposal to better screen recruits for mental health issues and also a plan to deploy suicide prevention officers on overseas missions.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.