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The shadow of PTSD

Lack of mental health support for veterans front-and-centre after apparent murder-suicide in Nova Scotia

Lack of mental health support for veterans front-and-centre, after apparent murder-suicide

An apparent murder-suicide has again drawn scrutiny to the Canadian government’s deficient mental health treatment for veterans.

The body of former infantryman Cpl. Lionel Desmond, 33, was found in his rural Nova Scotia home on Tuesday. Close by were the dead bodies of his mother, wife, and 10-year-old daughter.

Police say the four died of apparent gunshot wounds, and those suffered by the veteran appeared to be self-inflicted. There was no sign of forced entry and police are not looking for suspects.

The Department of National Defence released details of Cpl. Desmond’s service record. He was deployed with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment to Afghanistan from January to August 2007. For a year before he was released in July 2015, Desmond was posted to a support unit for ill and injured soldiers. “We will not discuss medical matters of individual members given privacy considerations,” a spokesperson said.

Members of the veteran’s family told reporters from the Canadian Press that Desmond was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning from Afghanistan, and had received treatment at a Montreal clinic before moving back home to Nova Scotia last year.

Another relative told reporters Desmond was recently turned away from a mental health unit in Antigonish, N.S., because there were no available beds.

The Canadian military lost 18 soldiers to suicide in 2015, and PTSD is the leading medical diagnosis putting troops at risk of early release from duty.

“If you choose to send soldiers to war, you have to pay the price of their treatment as long as that takes.”

Official statistics don’t record suicides by soldiers after they have left the service, so it is impossible to determine exactly how many veterans have killed themselves. But an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation has found at least 70 veterans of the 13-year Afghanistan mission who have committed suicide since returning home.

In December 2015, a vet with service in Afghanistan threw himself and his pregnant wife over their Toronto balcony. The month before, another former soldier testified in an Ottawa court he stabbed his wife to death while suffering flashbacks to his tours of duty in Croatia and Afghanistan.

Veterans Affairs says it has a network of 4,000 mental health workers delivering treatment services to veterans and released RCMP officers with stress disorders related to their service. The government now operates 11 stress injury clinics across the country, as well as a 24-hour toll-free help line, and provides short-term face-to-face mental health counselling before referring veterans to long-term treatment options. “We are working hard to ensure that each and every time a veteran comes forward with a mental health concern, they receive the support they need,” a department spokesperson said in an email to VICE News.

The Liberal government is expected to table a new defence policy in the spring to include an overhauled strategy to address suicide rates by serving soldiers and veterans, but has not provided details.

Veterans’ advocates say the government can do a lot more to help those still suffering on account of their service to the country.

Michael Blois, who served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Bosnia, told VICE News the government talks a good game, but, judged by its actions to date, isn’t taking the problem seriously.

“If I had the opportunity to speak face-to-face with members of Parliament, I would say the blood of all these suicides are on their hands,” Blois said.

Veterans Affairs relies too much on provincial mental health services, where quality and access vary greatly, Blois said, and veterans can wait as long as two years to get access to the long-term treatment they need. He said the government needs to hire the therapists and doctors required to provide direct treatment.

“If you choose to send soldiers to war, you have to pay the price of their treatment as long as that takes,” Blois said, arguing Canadians would support the significant expense if it meant soldiers were given the treatment they need to prevent tragedies like the one in Nova Scotia this week.

Cover: Photo by Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

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