Suicides rose in Canadian Forces in 2011

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The number of suicides among Canadian Forces personnel rose last year, according to the National Defence Department.

Twenty soldiers died of suicide in 2011 — 19 men and one woman, the department reports. Just 12 soldiers took their lives in 2010, all of them male.

“Obviously, even one suicide is a tragedy,” said Lt.-Col. Rakesh Jetly, a psychiatrist and senior mental-health adviser at the Defence Department.

“We’re taking it very seriously, but it would be dishonest for us to say that this is a trend. There’s just too much variance.”

As thousands of troops return from Afghanistan, the federal government’s role in ensuring the mental health of soldiers is under increasing scrutiny.

Jetly said dealing with the hidden mental wounds of the battlefield is one of the department’s top priorities.

He said the department is doing everything it can to prevent suicide and to provide mental-health services to returning soldiers.

“We’re tracking the numbers very closely,” he said. “We investigate every single suicide to find out what we could have done.”

The government spends almost $40 million per year to provide mental-health care to members of the Canadian military, according to the Defence Department.

New programs created over the last decade have removed much of the stigma from mental-health issues within the military, Jetly said.

“I’ve been here for 20 years. It’s phenomenal for me to look back and see the changes,” he said. “The reality of it all has taken a grip on people, the legitimacy of the illness, the stigma attached, the barriers to care. It’s all reflected in a very positive change of attitude.”

All soldiers and military personnel undergo mental-health screenings before deployment.

Over the last few years, the department has launched a series of measures aimed at raising awareness and educating soldiers and their families about mental-health issues.

Jetly said the awareness and education campaigns have removed the taboo from discussing mental health and suicide within the ranks.

“We talk freely about mental health and suicide, probably more than any segment of society, not just in health services but in the organization as a whole,” he said.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 34, according to Statistics Canada.

When adjusted for the overwhelmingly male population of the Canadian Forces, aged between 17 and 60, the suicide rate among Canada’s soldiers is below the national average, the department reports.

pehenderson@postmedia.com

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