Soldiers' mental health survey reveals fear of career stigma

New data from the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey reveals that one-third of soldiers worry that seeking help for mental health issues would harm their career.

Military watchdog efforts to reduce stigma and barriers working but more needs to be done

Newly released data from the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey reveals 34 per cent of Canadian Forces members worry that seeking mental health services would harm their career. The military ombudsman says the numbers show programs against stigma and barriers to care are working, but more needs to be done. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

One-third of Canada's soldiers worry that seeking mental health services would harm their career, according to newly released data from the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey.

The military's ombudsman says the numbers suggest the message that it is OK to seek help is getting through to some soldiers — but more needs to be done.

The raw data reveals 34 per cent of soldiers agree or strongly agree that seeking mental health services would harm their military career. Forty-seven per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed, and 19 per cent didn't feel strongly either way.

The survey was developed by Statistics Canada with the Department of National Defence. About 6,700 regular force members and 1,500 reservists were interviewed from April to August in 2013.

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.

The numbers given to CBC News are a snapshot of a larger survey to be released next month, and include only responses from regular force members. National Defence launched the survey to look for possible barriers to Canadian Forces members getting care.

A rash of suicides in late 2013 and early 2014 thrust mental illness and mental health support in Canada's military into the spotlight. This survey was conducted before those incidents, but during a time when Canada's mission in Afghanistan was ending and concern about mental health support was on the rise.

Fear treatment would end career

Canada's military ombudsman called the preliminary data "disconcerting."

"It tells me that the message that's coming from the top, though [it is] getting out as we can see in the stats … it still leads me to believe there is more to be done. We can't relax now, I think we have to keep the message going, keep focused on that," Gary Walbourne said.
Retired lieutenant-colonel Chris Linford said it took him 10 years to come forward after suffering with PTSD. He understands the fear soldiers face about coming forward about mental health, but says not getting help is worse. (Chris Linford)

Retired lieutenant-colonel Chris Linford knows what it's like to fear for your career. It took him a decade to come forward after a tour in Rwanda and seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder. He said the illness took a toll on him and his family, but the stigma prevented him from coming forward.

"It took about 10 years to figure out that I needed to ask for help, and it was really due to the stigma that existed back then, through the '90s and to the early 2000s, about this injury. Thinking that if you do come forward it's essentially the kiss of death for your career," he said.

Linford said he wished he had come forward earlier, because once he did the system worked and kept him in the military.

That was in 2004. He went on to serve in Afghanistan and was commander of 1 Field Ambulance in Edmonton. But he was medically released this past January because his symptoms returned after a tour in Afghanistan. 

After more than a year of therapy, he was not able to reach the point where he met the military's universality of service and could be deemed fit to be deployed.

That reality is where the fear lies.

I do believe it's a very courageous step to put your hand up to say, "I need some help."— Gary Walbourne, military ombudsman

"Should people be afraid of that? Well, perhaps. It might mean the end of your career if you do come forward because if you are too sick … you're going to be in breach of the universality of service," Linford said.

But, he said, the possibility your career could end should not discourage soldiers from seeking help, because the alternative is worse.

"Because if you continue to ignore your symptoms of PTSD and not go forward, the wake of destruction is pretty wide," he said, and affects friends and family members in particular. 

Fear of being seen as weak

Members were also asked whether seeking mental health services would make them appear weak. Twenty-five per cent agreed or strongly agreed, 55 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed and 17 per cent didn't feel strongly either way.

That touches on the stigma military leaders and the government have been trying to address, Walbourne said, adding it's part of soldiers' "DNA."

"It's duty, loyalty, it's camaraderie, it's being there for your mates. If they ever think that they're going to let down one of their fellow soldiers, that is seen as a weakness," he said.

Walbourne said what's needed is to convince members they're letting their colleagues down if they don't come forward.

"I do believe it's a very courageous step to put your hand up to say, 'I need some help,'" he said.

Seeking help alone

Members were also asked whether they would prefer to seek mental health services on their own. Forty per cent agreed or strongly agreed, 38 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed and 21 per cent did not feel strongly either way.

One official suggested this may lead the military to design tools to allow members to seek help online.

But Walbourne, the ombudsman, said he is concerned that might lead to problems and to more stress on a soldier's family.

"Sometimes, when people say they want to do it on their own, they're self-medicating — are the ramifications of their injury being felt at home?"

Johanna Quinney, spokeswoman for the minister of defence, said the health and well-being of soldiers remains a top priority for the government.

"Whether wounds are physical or mental, members who are battling illness or injury now have greater access to specialized care than ever before. We personally encourage all those in need to reach out, get help and benefit from these services," she said in a statement.

The full survey and analysis will be released at the end of November at the fourth annual Military and Veteran Health Research Forum in Toronto.


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