Several years ago, Child entered the Remembrance Essay Contest at the Royal Canadian Legion. He wrote an essay about the mental health of the Canadian Forces. Here’s what he said:
Remembrance Day is a time when we take a moment to remember the fact that war isn’t all the explosions and excitement video-games make it out to be. We do a great job remembering all the deaths, but we often forget the living. We have many brave men and woman who love their country so much, but don’t come back in one piece. Throughout their careers soldiers are told to deal with pain and not complain. Whether it is a physical injury or a mental illness soldiers often feel the same pressure to push through the pain.
One of the mental illnesses most associated with military service is post-traumatic stress disorder (aka PTSD), but there are a range of other more common mental illnesses which might affect Service and exService personnel. These include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, alcohol or drug misuse, feeling isolated, nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, anger, or aggression. People with these types of mental illness also seek out high-risk activities, and many have work or relationship problems. Many have suicidal thoughts, and too many either attempt or commit suicide.
Mental illness in the Canadian military was recognized as early as World War II. At that time it was called “shell shock.” The soldiers suffering from shell shock were sometimes considered cowards. After World War II, most psychiatrists thought that it wasn’t their job to help soldiers integrate back into society. That was a job for their families and local community. After the war, some soldiers got treatment for mental illness caused by their service, but many suffered from chronic conditions that did not respond well to treatment. Many lost their pensions for admitting to a mental illness. The general population did not accept that soldiers could have mental illness. For these reasons, many soldiers never admitted they were sick, and never got any help.
There has been over 75 years since the start of World War II. Surely we’ve gotten better at supporting soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and other battle-related mental illnesses. Sadly, that’s not the case. The modern military has become more engaged in helping and supporting the mentally ill. Unfortunately the armed forces have lost more personnel to suicide than those killed in combat in Afghanistan. If we understand this illness, why are these numbers so shockingly high? Do we need more programs? Do we need programs to be better advertised? Or could it be that veterans are not confident that the services can help?
One of the most prominent figures on Mental Illness for soldiers is Romeo Dallaire. He has often spoken publicly with his struggles with PTSD following his mission to Rwanda. He repeatedly warned of the imminent genocide, but the United Nations didn’t listen. Ultimately, at least 800,000 died over 100 days in Rwanda. Dallaire was medically released from the Canadian military in 2000. He has long been an advocate for Canada’s veterans, criticizing people who complain about the costs of the military. He said, ‘Now that they’re home — and the ones that are injured — they cost too much?” Mr. Dallaire has a valid point. Canada spent at least $22.3 billion on its military forces in 2010-11. Yet many soldiers had to wait 7 months for help, and some don’t even receive the help they need at all.
I’m an army cadet. In 4 years, I want to go to the Royal Military College, and then I want to join the Canadian Armed Forces. What great things do I have in store in my career? Travel, adventure, challenge, and probably, some kind of mental illness. So why would I want a career that just about guarantees me to become sick? It seems crazy, doesn’t it? Brave men and women love Canada so much that they risk their lives and their mental health. Canada is an honorable country, and we take great care of theses brave men and woman throughout their careers. If they have to pay the ultimate sacrifice we do an excellent job supporting their families, with the highway of heroes and Remembrance Day celebrations, but mental health issues seem to fall into a gray area in between. By no means are they forgotten, but they don’t always get the help they deserve or need. As we have more conflicts we forget to remember the living, in exchange for honouring the dead.
I think about this essay often, as he’s now of the age when he and his friends are enlisting; Just this week Child submitted his application to the ROTP at the Royal Military College, some of his friends are joining the reserves or regular forces. They feel the ache to sign their name and do their part. They’re not afraid of what might happen. They just want to be part of it. I’ve been thinking about this even more since this year’s Silver Cross Mother, Anita Cenerini was announced, as her son was the first death by suicide of a Canadian Soldier returning from Afghanistan.
A while ago, in a wander through a cemetery, I found a memorial attached to a rock that kicked me right in the chest:
There are, as my son said, too many, who can’t find their way out of that dark place, and choose this heartbreakingly final option.
This year, may we all help fight the stigma of mental health so that those who served can get the help they need to heal. May we understand that not all battles are over when the armistice or the treaty is signed.