Soldiers need Canada to take responsibility with PTSD education and support

Op-eds Opinions

Late last year, Canadians were saddened to learn that four soldiers committed suicide in less than a week as a result of struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Earlier this month, Lieutenant-Colonel Stéphane Beauchemin died at home and became the eighth soldier in just two months to take his own life. In response, the Department of National Defense (DND) has finally begun the process of hiring more mental health professionals to support our military personnel. While I applaud the DND for dealing with staffing deficiencies, it is shocking that even though the need for mental health services in the Forces was identified, literally, decades ago, deficiencies remain.

As aid organizations such as Doctors Without Borders assert, a person’s ability to manage his or her psychological wellbeing is directly affected by support systems for that person. And, because PTSD has no defined timeline, support systems should be in place early to help soldiers process  traumatic experiences in constructive ways. While we do not know exactly what prompts one person to ultimately suffer from PTSD and another not, strong evidence suggests early intervention plays a key role in forestalling the onset of PTSD.

Why budgetary constraints have been allowed to prevent the Forces from hiring the professionals they need eludes understanding—particularly since a strong case can be made that mental health professionals are as necessary in war as ammunition. Just in case that metaphor wasn’t clear, what I’m saying is that guns don’t work without bullets and people don’t work without brains. If we’re knowingly subjecting soldiers and civilians to stressful, life-threatening situations, it’s our responsibility to provide the services they require to overcome that stress. Why is it still even a debate?

The need for PTSD support is still debated because of how we write about, perceive, and understand psychological trauma. To use the recent rash of soldier suicides as an example, society does not become alerted to psychological trauma until there is violence towards oneself or others. I posit that violence needs to be understood as /one of many/ symptoms of psychological trauma, rather than as the most prominent symptom. We need to educate ourselves on the myriad manifestations of PTSD to effectively combat it. Moreover, journalists need to take responsibility to include more in-depth discussions in their articles covering PTSD.

The fact that so many Canadian soldiers feel they cannot cope with the stress of combat and have no recourse for assistance is indicative of a need for education about the warning signs of psychological trauma and to ensure access to care is available. Merely instructing severely injured soldiers to seek help clearly is inadequate; society needs to understand what to look for in terms of psychological trauma.

Historical evidence suggests that societal understanding leads to more engagement. In this case, we can see that articles about psychologically injured soldiers rarely contain any kind of in-depth discussion of the symptoms or factors that may precipitate PTSD. As such, PTSD makes headlines, while the nature of the disease—beyond the fact that it may lead to suicide—is largely unknown to readers. And without understanding a disease, how can we effectively advocate for victims? How can we truly engage in a discussion about the importance of mental health support for returning soldiers if we don’t understand what they are facing?