Groups struggle to come to grips with soldier suicides

Former soldiers, veterans advocates and lawmakers wrestled with duelling theories Tuesday about what might be at the heart of a sudden series of suicides this fall among serving members of the Canadian military.

OTTAWA — Former soldiers, veterans advocates and lawmakers wrestled with duelling theories Tuesday about what might be at the heart of a sudden series of suicides this fall among serving members of the Canadian military.

Testimony before two separate parliamentary committees struggled to come to grips with an issue some say defies explanation: what drives a person to the tragic, deeply personal decision to take their own life.

While the Harper government has invested millions bolstering mental health services at National Defence, scant attention is paid to helping the mentally and physically wounded transition to civilian life, the House of Commons defence committee was told.

The veterans affairs committee, meanwhile, heard Tuesday that the perceived financial uncertainty created by the government’s overhaul of veterans benefits is driving some soldiers to the brink.

At the same time, the head of the country’s special forces says it’s important to create an atmosphere where troops who struggle with their wartime experiences feel confident enough to speak up without fear of losing their career.

The debate is taking place against the backdrop of at least four apparent military suicides within a week in different parts of the country.

The Canadian military’s medical establishment is grappling to identify the triggers. A recent technical review of 38 suicide investigations catalogued 74 different recommendations.

There were 25 confirmed suicides in 2011 and an additional 17 deaths in 2012, said the September 2013 report, obtained by The Canadian Press.

National Defence says it has acted on the majority of the suggestions through existing initiatives. But it rejected recommendations calling for extra mental health services staff to be assigned to specific units, such as special forces, and for more screening of all troops before and after high-stress postings.

The rejection of more screening runs contrary to a recent Canadian Medical Association Journal report where a University of Toronto mental health expert warned that patients exposed to traumatic events in the military should be routinely checked for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.