Military needs to monitor post-combat suicides, panel told; Some people would ‘rather die,’ than admit they are suffering

 by Juliet O’Neill-THE OTTAWA CITIZEN- Jan 29, 2010. pg. A.6

Canadians should be wary of a grim trend in the United States where all military suicides outnumber combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, a top mental health expert said Thursday.

Zul Merali told a forum on Parliament Hill that military suicides in Canada should be tracked and made public so that Canadians know the scope of a hidden problem, in part, because of stigma associated with mental illness.

“As a society we need to come to terms with this issue square on,” said Merali, president and CEO of the Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research.

Merali was among speakers at a forum arranged by Liberal MPs to air problems facing some injured veterans of Afghanistan and other modern conflicts.

A ‘who’s who’ of veterans’ advocates pressed for reform of the ‘New Veterans Charter.’ They say the 2006 legislation has reduced compensation available to some physically and mentally disabled former military personnel compared to previous generations of veterans.

Advocate Sean Bruyea, a former Air Force intelligence officer, said the legislation was “created in a decidedly undemocratic environment” and was approved in the Commons in a few minutes without a word of debate.

“Veterans are demanding an all-encompassing recall,” he said.

Merali said while more than 4,500 U.S. military personnel have died in combat since the beginning of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, “a larger number are falling when they come back home through suicide.”

At a recent U.S. suicide prevention conference, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said 20 per cent of the country’s 30,000 suicides each year are acts by veterans of the current operation and previous wars — or 6,000 deaths.

Merali and other experts emphasized that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a brain injury, not a disease, and is treatable with physical and mental therapy and drugs. Some people would “rather die,” he said, than admit they are suffering, let alone seek help.

Trauma therapist Lyn Williams-Keeler said PTSD makes people extremely sensitive. She described it as “like walking around with the outer layer of your skin removed.”

Meanwhile, there have been 139 Canadian military fatalities in Afghanistan since 2002. But as to how many others have committed suicide since they came home, said Senator Romeo Dallaire, “Veterans Affairs and DND (Department of National Defence) don’t even want to count them.”

Dallaire has been in therapy for PTSD for 12 years, since serving as a military commander for an ill-equipped United Nations mission during the Rwanda genocide. He said images of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti have triggered his disorder again.
“It brings me immediately back to Rwanda,” he said.

One of Dallaire’s colleagues from Rwanda committed suicide last year. “Fourteen years after Rwanda … it still kills, it still renders us vulnerable.”

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff attended most of the forum and pledged his party would seek to revise the veterans charter and will watch the government’s budget for allocations to veterans’ health care.

“If you serve Canada, you deserve the best that Canada can provide when you come home,” he said.

Copyright CanWest Digital Media Jan 29, 2010

Credit: Juliet O’Neill; Canwest News Service