Suicides of 4 military members within a week a disturbing reminder of mental health's high toll
By Todd Humber
There’s an old saying in the news business that two is a coincidence, but three is a trend.
So I don’t know what to call the suicides of four Canadian soldiers, all within one week, other than a tragedy.
On Dec. 2, Master Cpl. Sylvain Lelievre, from the third battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment, died at CFB Valcartier in Quebec. Military police are investigating, but it is believed that Lelievre took his own life.
He joined the Canadian Forces in 1985, and served in Bosnia and Afghanistan
His death comes hot on the heels of Warrant Officer Michael McNeil of the third battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment at CFB Petawawa in Ontario; Master Cp. William Elliott outside CFB Shilo in Manitoba; and Travis Halmrast, an artillery soldier in Alberta who died after being held on charges of domestic assault.
According to the military, 22 full-time soldiers took their lives in 2011. And some think that number doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s going on with the mental health of soldiers because it doesn’t include reservists.
According to Canadian Press, some experts contend that for every suicide, as many as 12 other soldiers may have unsuccessfully attempted to kill themselves.
We all know the military is an extreme workplace. But there are plenty of workplaces where workers are at a high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cops, firefighters and anyone working at a hospital are undoubtedly at higher risk — we don’t need a study to tell us this.
I had the opportunity to host a roundtable on workplace mental health where we heard the story of Brian Knowler, a staff sergeant with an Ontario police service, who struggled for years with PTSD after answering a call to a fatal accident involving one of his friends. (Scroll down to see videos from that roundtable, including Knowler discussing his personal story.)
But don’t fool yourself into thinking PTSD only impacts workers in extreme careers. Any worker can be susceptible to its devastating effects. An accident in a workplace can leave witnesses shellshocked. Violence, which can happen in any working environment, can seriously harm the outlook of individuals on life.
And there are so many after-hours incidents, such as car accidents, that can affect an employee for years to come.
I still know plenty of very smart, talented individuals who dismiss PTSD as a sign of weakness, of someone not being able to hack it. I used to let that thinking go unchallenged, but not anymore.
It was less than a month ago that we, as a nation, collectively stopped to remember the tens of thousands of Canadians who have died in service to their country.
We owe it to these soldiers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses and, yes, the everyday Canadians in your workplace that may be suffering from PTSD to find a way to deal with these problems.
Police forces and the military are pushing ahead on this front. It can never be fast enough, but at least we’re moving in the right direction. The national standard on psychological health in the workplace is another great step forward.
So while we mourn the loss of the soldiers, and we fret about what to do and whether or not politicians and corporations can be convinced to loosen the purse strings, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’re, finally, moving in the right direction — even if it is just baby steps.
ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: Earlier this year, we wrote about how the Canadian Armed Forces addresses mental health. See Armed and ready to tackle mental health
Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at email@example.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information.
Videos from the Canadian HR Reporter roundtable on workplace mental health