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Canadian Forces preps battle plan for soldiers’ mental health

By Liz Bernier

The Canadian Forces has launched a new awareness video about mental health care in the Canadian military. The video, Mental Health in the Canadian Forces: You’re Not Alone, features many soldiers sharing their experiences.

“Within three weeks, we had over 200 volunteers,” said Suzanne Bailey, senior staff officer of social work and mental health education with the Canadian Forces in Ottawa. “They were all passionate about the fact that seeking mental health care was good for their career, it was good for their family (and) they found it beneficial personally.”

The Canadian Forces has a broad range of resources available for treating operational stress injuries (OSIs).

To pre-emptively address these types of injuries, soldiers receive training through the Road to Mental Readiness program before they are deployed.

“(We) wanted to give them some really simple tools to manage those situations where fear and panic might come into play, and help them recognize how they might respond in those situations… with the ultimate goal of mitigating longer-term mental health problems,” said Bailey.

After a deployment of 60 or more days, soldiers participate in an enhanced post-deployment screening process that looks for signs of distress or mental health injury.

Assistance is readily available at every military base in the country, said Paul Sedge, a psychiatrist with the Canadian Forces.

“We have a mental health clinic, or a mental health clinic equivalent, at every base in Canada. So anywhere a soldier goes, they can get access to mental health services… We also have seven of those clinics that have been upgraded to operational trauma and stress support centres, so these are mental health clinics that specialize in mental health injuries,” he said.

There are also base health and wellness services, family resource centres, health promotion teams and a chaplaincy branch that includes multi-denominational chaplains.

A free, confidential 800 number, operated by the Canadian Forces member assistance program, quickly connects personnel or their dependents with counselling services. There are also crisis counselling walk-in clinics available. 

No suicide epidemic

A public perception exists that there is a suicide epidemic among Canadian soldiers, said Sedge — but that perception is untrue.

“The suicide rate is not higher among (Canadian Forces) members, it’s not increasing, and there’s not a suicide epidemic,” he said.

Thirteen suicides by soldiers were reported in 2013, according to the CBC, which led to increased scrutiny about the availability of mental health care for soldiers. But a 2013 National Defence report, based on data from 1995 to 2012, found suicide rates among soldiers are lower than those among the overall population, and there has been no statistically significant change in suicide rates since 1995.

“It’s very hard when you see news reports about people suggesting that we don’t have the services available to our members and members can’t get the care they need,” said Sedge. “The reality is quite the opposite.”

That’s why the Forces has made awareness a priority, so soldiers can be well-versed in what resources are available to them.  

Liz Bernier is a news editor with Canadian HR Reporter, a sister publication of COS.

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