Suicide prevention strategy a step forward

January 26, 2018 by Sharon Adams
Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance speaks at the news conference.
Sharon Adams

Progress is finally being made in gathering accurate data on rates of suicide among Canada’s total veteran population, thanks to the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada’s Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy.

Statisticians currently have data on suicide for serving armed forces members, but such data has not been available for all veterans because once they leave the Forces, fewer than 20 per cent enter VAC programs. The vast majority of Canada’s estimated 670,000 veterans fall under the jurisdiction of provincial health-care programs, which may not record their military service.

One objective of the joint strategy is to better determine the suicide rate among veterans. Records on 329,000 CAF personnel enrolled between 1976 and 2015 will be cross-linked by Statistics Canada with vital statistics data.

In a report accompanying the announcement in October, veterans’ advocates had confirmation of something they have suspected for many years: “Based on the information available,” the report says, “it would seem that suicide can be more common among veterans as compared to the Canadian population.” The report said 10 per cent of VAC clients think about suicide. 

The Royal Canadian Legion is “pleased with the CAF and VAC Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy,” said Dominion President Dave Flannigan. “It is an important step forward to help reduce risks, build resilience and prevent suicide among our military members and veterans.”

The list of risk factors for veterans is long and includes physical and mental injury coupled with chronic pain, poor mental health and lack of support, exposure to trauma during deployment, involuntary or medical release, and poor transition to civilian life. The risk is highest among army personnel. 

“Suicide rates for the CAF are broadly in keeping with those of the general population,” said the report, which cited findings of a 2016 expert panel that, over the past decade, an average of 16.6 serving CAF regular force members and primary reservists have taken their own lives each year. “We have less comprehensive information about veterans…but we are working to improve our knowledge.”

“We must do better,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan. “This new strategy is a solid step in doing so.”

Although suicide has been a separate focus of the two departments for decades, O’Regan said, “This is an approach we haven’t seen before—a co-ordinated and collaborative effort to potentially save lives.”

The strategy involves a combination of 160 new initiatives and existing programs to reduce suicide risk. These include spreading the word about available programs and services, building mental health resilience in military personnel, involving and supporting families and community, providing timely access to care, adjusting policies and processes to better manage risk and stress, and supporting research.

New initiatives include hiring a specialist on suicide, another on addiction to advise the Forces, and the formation of a dual department Seamless Transition Task Force bent on reducing the stress experienced by some CAF members as they begin their civilian lives.

Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance said the long-standing policy of universality of service, which maintained that every CAF member must be deployable, is being reconsidered. “We must be deployable—we are an armed forces after all—but we also have to think in terms of the valued individual who’s not deployable, but is employable.”

VAC’s initiatives include decreasing case managers’ load ratio to 25:1; suicide intervention training for staff; $4 million in emergency funding for all veterans, not just VAC clients; $13.9 million to promote innovative research and services; and establishing a centre of excellence on post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental-health conditions.

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