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Report examines Canadian military suicides over two decades

Deployment, combat service indicate potential risk


(Canadian OH&S News) — The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (CF) have jointly released the Surgeon General’s annual report tracking suicides within the military. While the new report showed no significant change in overall trends since the 2015 one, there were evident links between suicides and army service or deployment.

Published on Nov. 23, 2016 Report on Suicide Mortality in the Canadian Armed Forces (1995 to 2015) compiled data on suicides over a 20-year period in terms of age group, education, method of suicide, mental-health issues, life stressors and other factors. Among the most recent results: of the males who took their own lives last year, 57 per cent were married and about half had high-school diplomas; 93 per cent of all personnel who committed suicide in 2015 had had access to mental-health services beforehand; and nearly 43 per cent of all 2015 military suicides had suffered from depression.

“This year’s study was very much a repeat of the information from last year, except, obviously, with another year’s worth of data included,” explained Col. Andrew Downes, the CF’s director of mental health.

The previous year’s report marked the first time that researchers had observed significant increases in suicides among personnel who had served in the army (as opposed to the navy or air force) and who had undergone deployment to another location, he added.

“It’s not deployment itself that may be a risk factor for suicide, but rather, it’s what happens on the deployment,” Col. Downes clarified. “People are exposed to physical and psychological trauma while on certain missions, and so as a result, some people develop mental illness.” Constant exposure to death and destruction in combat can cause mental illness, for example.

“But I should also just stress that the majority of people who deploy — and even the majority of those who are exposed to these psychological traumas — do not develop mental illness,” he added. “And we have people who die by suicide who’ve never deployed.”

Similarly, soldiers who served in the army, particularly in combat operations in Afghanistan, were more likely to be exposed to these traumatic events — which made them more apt to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental-health problems.

“Suicide is really a multidimensional event,” said Col. Downes. “There are many factors that come into play in an individual case of suicide.” Other factors that the researchers observed included financial and relationship stressors, for example — “things that go on in a human life.”

The updated report did not point to any new directions in the military’s suicide-prevention strategies, but the CF already has a highly regarded mental-health system, he pointed out.

“In addition to making people more resilient to stressors that they might encounter during their career, the program also provides tools and information to people to better understand when they should seek care,” said Col. Downes. “It also helps leaders identify when their troop’s maybe suffering and where they can go for care.”

The system also conducts research to produce detailed reports like this one, he added.

“We investigate each suicide individually,” he said, “to try to learn from each and every case and to see if there are opportunities to intervene, so that we can reduce the risk of suicides in the future.”

2016 Report on Suicide Mortality in the Canadian Armed Forces is available online at http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/about-reports-pubs-health/report-on-suicide-mortality-caf-2016.page#executive-summary.