OTTAWA – Despite the suicides of three Afghan war veterans this week, a military psychiatrist says there has not been a recent increase in suicide rates among Canadian Forces members.
But the numbers of soldiers dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder are expected to rise within the next decade as the stress of combat takes hold in those who have returned from the fighting in Afghanistan, Col. Rakesh Jetly said Friday.
That is a troubling prospect as the military grapples with the latest rash of suicides, which are shining a spotlight on the programs the military has available for dealing with cases of PTSD.
Critics have also questioned how the Canadian Forces tracks suicides among its members, and whether the numbers paint an accurate picture.
The military doesn’t include suicides among reservists in the data, even though it keeps tabs on them, leading to speculation that the actual rates may be much higher.
“We track them, we have them, we do investigate. If a Class B reservist (completes a suicide) we’ll do an investigation there as well.” Jetly told a teleconference Friday.
“The problem is, it’s been very, very difficult for us within the organization to actually accurately capture reservists,” he explained.
“We’re just afraid that if we just sort of start trying to tabulate them that the numbers will be misleading.”
The latest suicide case involved a senior non-commissioned officer at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, northwest of Ottawa.
Military police are investigating. The army has identified the victim as Warrant Officer Michael McNeil of 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.
The Defence Department is also probing the deaths of two other soldiers in Western Canada.
Friends have identified one soldier as Master Cpl. William Elliott. Authorities will only say they are investigating the death Tuesday of a soldier at a home just outside CFB Shilo in Manitoba.
An artillery soldier also died in hospital Monday after he was found in distress at a correctional centre in Lethbridge, Alberta. The man, identified by friends as Travis Halmrast, was being held on charges of domestic assault when he died.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson noted Thursday that the government has poured millions of dollars into treatment and counselling programs for soldiers returning from combat since 2011.
Still, he called the latest deaths “very troubling.”
While Canada continuously looks to other countries to see what programs they use to help reduce suicide rates, Jetly said many of those other countries look to Canada for examples of programs that work.
Opposition critics, however, say the government has not put enough resources into programs that would prevent suicides.
“We need a system in place to ensure that we can identify where the failing is,” said New Democrat MP Matthew Kellway. “At this point in time it’s not clear that we have that system.”
The Defence Department has not released suicide figures for last year, but the latest figures show that 22 full-time members took their own lives in 2011.
Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray urged the Canadian Forces to bolster programs for family members of soldiers returning from combat.
“There are severe stresses on the families that are not adequately addressed,” she said. “So when a person is injured in service, that adds stress. I think having more supports for the family, there’s clearly a call for that.”