When examining the mental health challenges facing members of the Regular Force, the Reserve Force and our Veterans we must remember that the stresses these people face, or have faced, are vastly different from those of the general Canadian experience. Military members face all of the normal stresses the average Canadian will face, but they also are exposed to a lifestyle that has removed them from familial support. That same lifestyle has also brought with it a greater exposure to the harsh realities of death or injury.
All of this will shape how current and former members deal with stress. A ‘martial culture’ which poorly tolerates evidence of weakness acts to serve the collective needs of ‘the mission’ even as it fails the individual. It’s a highly complex environment that brings great risk, but also offers great reward. Nor should we assume that stress and mental health issues are the sole province of our combat veterans, much of the spectrum of military training and operations carries an elevated degree of risk.
By way of example, let’s examine my own modest, non-combat career for stressors:
My first posting, in North Bay, would see me serve as a pall bearer for a service-member being returned home, the loss of a Squadron pilot due to a maintenance failure, the loss of another in a private aircraft, serious accidents involving a pair of friends, I witnessed an aircraft run off a runway (after taking our place in line for departure), got engaged, got dis-engaged, my brother has a life-threatening illness, a suicide involving the former beau of a friend and my father died. All told, a well-rounded first tour lasting 6 years.
Germany would see me serve on the accident investigation panel for a dead friend, another aircraft crash would claim a base pilot, a member of my section died in an accident and was repatriated, an aunt died and my mother became seriously ill.
4 years just a bit more stressful than average.
Cold Lake starts with my mother dying. A member of my section dies in an accident and the rest of this tour is almost uneventful. 4 years that aren’t really too far from the norm.
Of course, a full accounting would include the the well understood dangers of working in close proximity to operating aircraft and the fact that military bases, for the period of the Cold War, were strategic or tactical targets. Or both.
So now we can understand that a mixture of professional and personal stressors may affect our service men and women. My apologies if I inadvertently left anything out.
So, how do we help our people to deal with this?
First, we need to have a better idea of what the individuals are dealing with. We also need a better grasp on what support structure is available to these people. Information is key, call it ‘Mental Health Intelligence’, without it we are taking random potshots in the dark. If nothing else, this is poor fire control.
We can achieve this goal of ‘Mental Health Intelligence’ by collecting data on stressors and support structure on a regular basis. This needn’t be overly intrusive. It could probably be readily done through the form of a simple online questionnaire that a member completes at whatever interval is found to be best. The information would then serve to allow a proactive, prophylactic examination of those members who may be at risk. A member who doesn’t know where to turn instead finds himself sought out by someone who can help.
The second thing we should look at is help for members separating from the service. We need to be able to properly assess the mental health of those leaving the service so as to ensure that members receive the help and assistance they deserve and require. Take, for example, a member who may be suffering from depression at the time of release. If this member lacks a functional support structure all the ‘transition’ tools provided may be meaningless. If a departing member is not properly positioned to take advantage of opportunities, those opportunities don’t actually exist.
Part of the process would be a review of the self-reported information previously gathered. With this information available to the health care team doing a member’s out-clearances they can know to look for appropriate warning signs. They can also be better prepared for those signs which may be masked.
The most difficult part of providing better mental health care in the CAF is a change of culture. The days of the ‘sick, lame and lazy list’ need to be gone for good. Far too often such an attitude has been a pejorative. It is, indeed it always has been, inappropriate. We would think nothing of throwing our weight behind a large piece of equipment a colleague was trying to move alone. When the burden is mental, the need for help is no less real.
We do a disservice to our colleagues, our unit, the Service and our Nation if we don’t lend our strength to those in need.
Simple humanity demands we help.