One is too many; let alone eight. The news that Lt.-Col. Stéphane Beauchemin took his own life this month is devastating. The only thing the Canadian Forces—and many civilians—seem to agree on is that awareness of suicide risk is key. But we must do more. While we grapple continually with how to stop more suicides (close to 3,700 Canadians take their lives each year, according to Health Canada), we must always ask ourselves if the suicides of eight soldiers within three months could have been avoided. These are people we place directly in danger, pushing the fight-or-flight stress response to its limits as part of their daily work. We know they are at risk and need monitoring. Yet the Canadian Forces seems passive, instead of addressing the issue head-on.
Consider the military’s response to the recent series of suicides among its ranks: “We have an expert health-care system to support us,” said General Tom Lawson in a recent statement, “but in order for us to help each other it’s essential that all military personnel—like all Canadians—recognize mental health issues as they develop.” Lawson’s words were reported by The Canadian Press and repeated by a number of major media outlets. Over the last three months of military suicides reported, the response from the brass has generally been that programs and services are in place, and it’s up to individuals to seek treatment. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has echoed the appeal to forces members to seek out the help they need.
So it’s the victim’s fault for not reaching out? And before we point our collective appalled fingers at Harper or the Canadian Forces, let’s also take a hard look at ourselves. Let’s face it. Society on a broad scale does blame the victim. We suggest the person was “selfish” or “stupid” to take his or her own life. They should have sought help. But where were the rest of us? We should be reaching out to our soldiers directly, not asking them to reach out to us.
The last time I checked the ones who are really depressed don’t contact people. It’s up to the people around them to see they are in trouble. That’s not to shift blame to families who may not have even seen their loved ones recently. Maybe they live too far away or have been told by the person at risk that all is well. No one is saying it’s easy. But if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to keep that child alive and well.
When a child is at risk, the Children’s Aid Society goes into homes to monitor the family dynamics, and see how the parents are doing as well. Perhaps this model could work for the Canadian Forces too. I’m not aware that any social work agency is proactively visiting forces members. (If I’m mistaken, let me know.) Certainly as a general practitioner I can guarantee that if a soldier and his or her family were in my practice, the soldier would get regular calls and be encouraged to visit with me along with family members. Of course a revamped model of care would require open, unguarded discussion about suicide. And a financial investment.
Today, Bell Canada is holding its “Let’s Talk” day again. On that day the company donates five cents to mental health initiatives for every long distance call made, text message, Tweets using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, and Facebook share of the Bell Let’s Talk image. Bell notes on its Let’s Talk web site that “mental illness is one of the most widespread health issues in the country.” Their work to increase conversation about mental illness is admirable. But can’t we do more than talk—especially when it comes to suicide? Bell and other companies that care, along with mental health experts, could help the government create a program for families and friends to learn the warning signs. A program in which experts go straight to the soldiers, instead of expecting them to come to us. Maybe it’s time the Canadian Armed Forces emerged from its bunker and chipped in as well to a broader, collaborative initiative. They put their people under conditions of the highest stress—they shouldn’t be surprised when those same soldiers are afraid to say it’s hard for them to handle. And it’s the civilians around them who need to gain the know-how and courage to really have our soldiers’ backs. The issue of suicide amongst our enlisted has shone a bright light on a problem that kills an average 11 people a day in Canada—revisiting how we approach suicide is a mission best I feel is accomplished together.
Elaine Chin, MD, MBA
Founder, Executive Health Centre