Statement made on 15 December 2011 by Senator Roméo Dallaire
Hon. Roméo Antonius Dallaire:
Honourable senators, I would like to speak on the motion presented by my colleague Senator Dawson on suicide. As a short introduction, I should like to bring the following statistics to hopefully pique your attention. The Canadian Forces lost 158 soldiers, men and women — women in combat units — in the recent campaign in Afghanistan. There are unconfirmed estimates now that, due to the injuries of that mission and of previous missions, the figure is far higher, in the order of 175 or 180, due to soldiers who have returned and committed suicide due to the psychological impact and operational stress injuries.
I will speak to the motion proposing a national suicide prevention strategy.
Honourable senators, today, I would like to talk about the issue of suicide in relation to the motion introduced by Senator Dawson. As he has said, suicide is not only a personal tragedy but also a serious public health issue that the government must take into consideration in order to develop an effective action plan that will allow the federal government, the provinces and all relevant organizations to work together to establish a national suicide prevention strategy.
I agree with the honourable senator's solution, and I would like to address this issue by talking about how it relates to members of the Canadian Forces, veterans and those who serve overseas.
As part of their service, soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen may be exposed to traumatic situations, both in the field, abroad and at home, and in training. In our roles in the UN or NATO missions, our soldiers have faced unimaginable atrocities. These images remain vividly imrpinted in their memory, even several decades later. The missions in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, or the latest in Afghanistan, for example, have deeply marked the soldiers who took part. Smaller participation in missions such as in the Congo, in Sudan and in Sierra Leone, has also left traces in the minds of many. Some suffer psychological consequences of these horrors instantly, while others do not feel the effects until years later.
One of the 12 officers who were deployed with me in Rwanda 17 years ago, committed suicide three years ago, 14 years after the event. The board of inquiry confirmed that the suicide was due to the operational stress injury and, so, to the mission.
Having lived through this situation, I would like to implore you to consider my suffering, which is shared by many veterans and active members of the Canadian Forces. The events that I experienced left a lasting mark that changed my life and my family's. I lived through hell and, although the worst is now behind me, I am still suffering the consequences of my devoted service to this country.
Last Easter, as my granddaughter was just turning eight months, in the living room, while the family was together, she fell down and hit her head. She, of course, cried. There was no serious injury, but the whole family reacted instantaneously in coming to her comfort, except for me. The noise of her head hitting the table and her cries immediately brought back the hundreds upon hundreds of children that I saw slaughtered, abandoned and dying in the streets, in the woods, in the forests, in the mountains and in the rivers of Rwanda.
It came back, digitally clear and in slow motion, and it lasted for minutes, making it nearly impossible to pick up or even console my grandchild. It has required a continuum of care and medication to be able to now appreciate her a little more.
My case is far from unique. The number of veterans and active members suffering from injury, operational post traumatic stress such as depression, stress and other anxiety disorders tripled between 2002 and 2007. This infernal spiral of psychological suffering can drive people to the same point I got to, in other words to attempted suicide and in far too many cases, to suicide.
I would not wish the hell of living with this pain and distress on anyone.
The most recent statistics on military and veteran suicide were released this year, in a study by Statistics Canada entitled Canadian Forces Cancer and Mortality Study: Causes of Death. This study examined the causes of death of Canadian Forces regular force members who had joined and served between 1972 and 2006. It was found that 696 male veterans and 29 female veterans had committed suicide. Additionally, in the same period, 201 male and 37 female members had committed suicide while still in service. These are confirmed, documented suicides followed by boards of inquiry to confirm them. There are many more injuries and poisonings, among other causes of death, that cannot be verified as self-inflicted death. These numbers are far too high and yet to be defined.
What also concerns me, honourable senators, is that these numbers only go up to 2006. We do not know the military and veteran suicide rates from 2007 to today. What we do know, however, is that the operational tempo increased significantly, in this most recent time period, with the theatre of operations in Afghanistan. When the Canadian Forces was fighting that combat mission, it was also on humanitarian missions in Haiti, Sierra Leone, Darfur and the Congo, on security operations at the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games and conducting regular operations, including search and rescue in defence of Canadian sovereignty.
This heavy demand on our relatively small military comes with an invisible cost paid by some of our forces through mental health.
Let us note, honourable senators, that the Canadian Forces began their mission in Kandahar in 2006 and that the most combat-related deaths, injuries and heaviest fighting have occurred since then. However, since we do not have official military and veteran suicide statistics from 2006 onward, allow me to paint you a rather disconcerting picture of the Canadian Forces mental health situation
Statistics show that the number of soldiers and veterans with suicidal thoughts is twice as high as among civilians. Nonetheless, according to officials, the rate of suicide is similar among civilians and soldiers of the same age. This might be explained by the fact that soldiers are carefully selected and prepared for service. Generally, they are in better health than civilians, but they are more exposed to traumatic situations. These two factors balance out and give us similar rates for the two populations. This changes when soldiers withdraw from active service. Compared to civilians of the same age, there are 46 per cent more suicides among veterans.
What is more, since 2006, 75 per cent of the clients of the new veterans charter who get rehabilitation services and monthly financial support, have a mental injury or illness. This leaves us with serious questions about the transition services for our veterans and is a major source of concern. It suggests that the number of suicides and operational stress injuries is higher than it was before 2006 and will be for years to come.
Please note, honourable senators, that these statistics pertain to the regular forces only. There are no recent, official statistics available for the reserves, which generally have deployed up to 20 per cent of all soldiers in all missions.
Recently, we have relied heavily on our reservists in order to carry out our many, simultaneous and difficult missions. In light of the difficult transition from civilian life to deployment, which reservists sometimes have to make many times, and their geographical distance from Canadian military bases, we estimate that suicide and mental health problems are as prevalent in this group. A deliberate effort to gather information is absolutely essential to a better assessment of the situation.
Honourable senators, because of personal contacts I have maintained within the military and veteran community, I have been able to gather supporting evidence for the difficult situation portrayed by the facts I have just shared. I am troubled to tell you that it has been a difficult year. This month in particular, four reservists who all served in Afghanistan recently committed suicide. Over the last two weeks, four other soldiers have attempted suicide. This week, two more were successful.
In 2010, the recent average suicide rate doubled. We lost 22 serving members this way. In 2011, statistics have increased significantly. This is heartbreakingly unacceptable. These are casualties of the same operations, for which we say nothing nor provide any recognition, as those who died on the battlefield.
The impact of military suicides and even suicides among military family members and close relations also needs to be considered. The absence of a serving family member, particularly a mother or a father, through death or deployment, and the possible changes in behaviour upon return can traumatize family members as well. This collateral cost of service needs to play into the development of a national suicide prevention strategy. You deploy the soldier, sailor, air person; you have also committed the family.
We are in a country with a small military in comparison with those of our allies. However, we pull our weight as part of missions led by international coalitions. Due to the limited number of Canadian Forces members, members serve in operations in overseas theatres on a regular basis. It is not unusual to find members who have completed three or four deployments to Afghanistan alone. When you count the Yugoslavian campaign and a series of other missions, we have cases of sergeants who have nine deployed missions, each of six months, plus pre-training.
We now have in the Canadian Forces members who have more combat time than the Second World War veterans in far more complex scenarios.
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable senators, could we have order so that we could hear Honourable Senator Dallaire, please?
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Dallaire: I will speak louder, and as my marine corps friends taught me, I will power talk.
This situation increases stress and the risk of experiencing traumatic events. Many suffer from physical and psychological wounds that can possibly lead them to suicide. The cause of injury for this population group is high.
Other government departments may be affected too, by the tempo of the whole-of-government deployments overseas that we have now introduced as policy. In particular, there are agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, or DFAIT, diplomats who are deploying and their staff, the RCMP, a number of municipal and provincial police. We have on average, honourable senators, over 200 police deployed at any one time around the world, as well as CIDA, whose development staff are now deployed out of the wire and in the field to be able to implement their tasks in the missions given. These can also experience levels of stress and traumatic situations similar to those experienced by the military. It is not only the military that experience the fallout of trauma. Non-government organizations providing humanitarian aid in conflict or disaster zones may also suffer from similar conditions, as do journalists who have spent too much time in theatres of war and who then are affected; and whether they are capable of sustaining those stresses and providing the objective reports should also be considered by their agencies. They, too, are vulnerable to operational stress injuries and conditions that can lead to suicide. Operational stress injury is an injury that can be terminal.
When developing a national suicide prevention strategy, we must consider the problems experienced by our veterans, current members of the Canadian Forces, and any other person with psychological injuries associated with stressful events experienced in the line of duty, as well as their families. I repeat, as well as their families.
The officer who committed suicide three years ago when deployed with me was found the next morning after a tiff with his wife who then went to sleep with their daughters in order to calm the family. Three years later, on the anniversary of that suicide, the now teenage girls have accused their mother of having perpetrated or advanced the suicide of their father by the fact that the stress had made her less tolerant. The impact on the families lasts longer than the one year of support of bereavement we give. They last, potentially, for a lifetime.
This different reality must be taken into consideration so that we can address their specific needs. The resources available to them must take into account what they have lived through and the psychological injuries they have. Suicide is not an individual problem; it is a societal problem because it is society that requires the dangerous services that put these individuals at risk. We must ensure that we protect individuals who are suffering from themselves and give them tools to help them find another way to ease their suffering. They kill themselves because they are hurting. They are trying to ease their physical and psychological pain.
Follow-up is essential to prevent them from suffering a fatal relapse and to help them find a balance that, although precarious, can keep them alive. We must recognize that the Canadian Forces' approach to mental health has evolved since my time. The Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada acknowledge psychological wounds, such as wounds related to operational stress and post-traumatic stress. This acknowledgement can help those who are suffering get treatment. Before, these struggles were considered to be a sign of weakness. The military system adjusted in light of the many cases and adopted an approach that favours dialogue. We hope that the National Hockey League will move in the same direction.
Training is offered as part of military training before and after deployment, to explain the symptoms and present the treatments and resources available to those struggling with these types of problems.
As a result of changing attitudes, members of the Canadian Forces now receive better support from the chain of command and from their peers. Although there is still work to be done in this regard — particularly in order to help reservists who are often isolated in rural areas and do not have access to services because of their geographic distance from a military base — the process of raising awareness has been reasonably successful, and measures have been taken to address the problem.
Honourable senators, we know that December is a particularly difficult month for those who suffer from mental health issues. This is particularly the case for those of us in the military who have served and are now veterans. December is meant to be a joyful holiday season, but military members are often not able to be with their families. Those who are or who have served often find themselves thinking, like on Remembrance Day, about those who were never able to make it home.
This December, honourable senators, let us take a stand and show those feeling the pull of the suicidal vortex that Parliament is there for them and that we will do something to help them live a more positive life.
Honourable senators, it is important to take action now and to adopt this motion today in order to examine possible options and implement a national suicide prevention strategy. The other house has already unanimously adopted a similar motion to take concrete action to combat suicide. The characteristics of soldiers and veterans must be implicitly included in order to ensure that their particular problems are considered.