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Studies shine a light on suicide patterns

Male veterans are at the highest risk of suicide four years after release from the Canadian Armed Forces. A history of deployment does not appear to increase suicide risk.

These are but two of the findings in two 2018 reports on suicide in the military and veteran communities, studies which continue to dice the data more finely to identify new areas to focus efforts in the joint CAF/Veterans Affairs Canada suicide-prevention strategy.

Both organizations are seeking to identify those at greatest risk of suicide, and are studying variables such as age, rank, circumstances of release, correlation to combat experience and branch of service to help identify those most at risk and focus on them for support services.

There were 13 suicides among men in the regular forces in 2017, says the 2018 Report on Suicide Mortality in the Canadian Armed Forces. Most of the men had three of several significant sources of stress, including failed relationships with a spouse or partner, failed relationships with family or friends, a death of family or friends, illness in the family, debt, work performance problems or legal problems. Nearly half suffered from a physical-health problem, and 53.8 per cent had at least two mental-health issues.

Nearly 40 per cent had a history of being abused, and 30 per cent had been perpetrators of physical or emotional abuse. Not one was in the process of being released from the CAF.

Although earlier reports linked increased suicide risk to deployment, that changed between 2015 and 2017, suggesting a post-Afghanistan shift in risk pattern. Between 2002 and 2017, there were 75 suicides among regular-force males who had experienced combat.

The risk is still highest for men in the army, the report said.

There have been 112 deaths by suicide among regular-force males in the army over the past 16 years, compared to 76 in the navy and air force, said the report. The CAF has tracked and reported suicide mortality since 1996. The 2018 study covers regular-force males from 1995 to 2017. Reservists, veterans and serving female members were not studied.

“These reports will help us further understand this issue and find effective ways to support our military members, veterans, and their families,” said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Male and female military veterans are significantly more likely to die by suicide than civilians, said the 2018 Veteran Suicide Mortality Study, which reviewed records of 200,000 veterans, including some reservists, released from the CAF between 1976 and 2012, focusing on identifying risk groups at release.

Male veterans at highest risk were junior non-commissioned members at release and those
who were not voluntarily released.

Male suicide rates were highest in the first decade post-release, but the risk for women peaks at about 20 years after release.

“These findings provide evidence to implement suicide prevention interventions beyond the first few years after release from the CAF,” said the report.

“When it comes to suicide, there is no simple solution or easy answer,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay. “But we must do everything we can to better understand the issue, so we can prevent suicide amongst Canada’s veterans.”

“The Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy will help guide this work,” said CAF Surgeon-General Andrew Downes. “It will help to ease the stressors that some experience during transition to civilian life.”

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