Soldiers at higher risk of suicide after serving in Afghan war zone

A new report from the military's top doctor finds an "elevated risk" of suicide among soldiers who have served in Afghanistan, prompting a call for action from Canada's new defence minister.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan calls for more action to address mental health in the forces

A report by the Surgeon General has found "strong evidence" that soldiers who deployed as part of Canada's mission in Afghanistan face elevated risk of suicide. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

A new report from the military's top doctor finds an "elevated risk" of suicide among soldiers who have served on the front lines in Afghanistan, prompting a call for more action on mental health from Canada's new defence minister.

Statistics released by the Surgeon General Brig.-Gen. Hugh MacKay, which track suicide rates for two decades between 1995 and 2014, find the figures among men in the Canadian Armed Forces generally on a par with those in the general population. But the report flags an emerging trend since 2010 of "significantly higher" suicide rates among army troops who were deployed to Afghanistan.

Over the past 13 years, there were 80 suicides among regular-force male members of the army, compared to 67 in the navy and air force combined. The most common methods were by hanging, shooting, asphyxiation or drugs.

"There is strong evidence that the CAF mission in Afghanistan has had a powerful impact on the mental health of an important minority of personnel who deployed in support of it," the report reads. "Clear differences in the prevalence of mental disorders among personnel who deployed in support of that mission and other personnel have also been demonstrated."

The report also notes a higher prevalence of mood disorders, spouse or partner breakdown and career-related proceedings.

Col. Rakesh Jetly, the military's chief mental health adviser, said while the overall increase is not statistically significant, the defence department is measuring and addressing it as increase in suicides. While that is a different "narrative" than in the past, he said it's not a surprise given the 10-year land war in Afghanistan.

"The army has been active and most of the casualties killed in action have been in the army," he told CBC News. "It's not a surprising figure, but of course every loss is a tragedy and we're concerned about getting people the best care possible."

Jetly said the military has launched many initiatives to tackle mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has nearly doubled in the last decade to five per cent of the force. Because the impact of the Afghan mission will continue for years to come, he said it's crucial to knock down barriers to care and to invest in research and treatment.

Defence minister wants more done

New Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, a decorated former lieutenant-colonel who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, issued a statement stating his strong concern about the findings. He said the CAF has done much to address the issues around treatment, care and stigma, but said more must be done.

National Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, himself a veteran of the Afghan mission, is calling for more action to address mental health in the military. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"As minister, taking care of our people is my personal priority," he said. "I am fully committed to live up to our obligation to Canadian Armed Forces members and their families."

The report cautions that insufficient mental health resources should not be blamed, noting that mental health surveys found that needs have been met and that access to care is "well above" that in provincial and territorial health-care systems

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said the health and well-being of CAF members and their families is his "highest priority."

"We already have an extensive suicide prevention program in place, supported by highly capable and compassionate personnel, but clearly we must continually strive to improve," he said.

He also urged all members who need help, or know of someone else who needs help, to go to the nearest CAF health clinic or civilian emergency health-care centre.

But retired Capt. Wayne Johnston, who served as the CAF repatriation officer to return fallen soldiers to Canada from Afghanistan, said the military must do more to financially support soldiers who are scarred from war.

"People are going to commit suicide, but do I think they could mitigate it by providing financial security? Yes, I do," he told CBC News.

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