Two Canadian veterans of Afghanistan have begun a social media campaign to encourage their fellow soldiers to get in touch with buddies from battles gone by and ensure no one is unwell, slipping into depression or heading toward suicide.
Sgt. Brian Harding and Master Cpl. Jordan Irvine came up with the idea earlier this month as news of four Canadian Forces suicides was spreading across the country. They called the campaign Send Up The Count. It was named after a military command given on patrols to have each soldier in turn reach out and tap the soldier in front and announce their presence, said Harding.
"So, we've taken the term and adapted it to sort of reflect an initiative to reach out to fellow veterans and say, 'OK, is everybody still here?' Let's get in touch with the guys we haven't talked to in a couple years, see how they're doing, how they're doing at life and most importantly, are they suffering and are they at risk and have they talked to anybody about it?"
Harding and Irvine started the campaign on a military-focused web forum called Milnet.ca. It has since moved on to Twitter with the hashtag #sendupthecount.
"Many, many soldiers are getting in touch with other guys," Harding said. "I'm hearing back from buddies who are saying, 'Hey this is working. I got a call out of the blue the other day from someone I deployed with.' There's a tremendous amount of support.
"I've yet to really hear a single bit of negative feedback on this, which tells me right there that there's got to be something we're doing right here."
Harding said the campaign has already saved one life. He's spoken to a soldier who apparently stopped a suicide attempt after his fellow former comrades reached out.
"What he told me, and I did get this from him personally, was that it got to the point where his depression and anxiety had him sitting there in his house with a gun and the one bullet in his hand that he was going to use on himself.
"Now, he had been following what we'd been doing for the past couple days and I guess he decided, 'Like, all these other people are suffering, too. It doesn't need to be this way.' And he did tell me that he quite literally put the gun down, called up his military chaplain ... and he's now seeking proper treatment."
10 soldier suicides this year
Before the most recent deaths, the military had calculated the number of suicides in 2013 at six. Add on the recent four, and the total reaches 10 — a number on par with other years.
The Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson last week released an unprecedented video address to the troops, speaking entirely about suicide, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
That last diagnosis has affected soldiers across the generations, although often by different names. "Combat stress" was used in Vietnam, and "shell shock" was the term used in the First and Second World Wars.
The Canadian Forces first started to grapple with operational stress injuries as a treatable mental illness following its participation in the United Nations intervention in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s.
It's believed service in Afghanistan has made the problem more acute, although numbers on those affected in the ranks are hard to come by.
That's a key problem that Harvey Moldofsky believes the military needs to address. Moldofsky was for years a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and is considered a PTSD expert.
"I think the fact that the media have finally brought this to the attention of the Canadian public has been quite remarkable, particularly in light of the emerging news [of those suicides] of which most Canadians are unaware.
"I think the military with their limited resources have done their best. But that’s not enough," Moldofsky said.
He's urging the military to implement both pre- and post-mission screening and to otherwise better track PTSD, operational stress injuries and suicide.
“Unfortunately, I am not aware of statistics emerging in the country except that Canadians have been reassured that the prevalence of suicide among the Canadian military is not more, and is, in fact, less than what exists in the public domain," Moldofsky said.
Military statistics incomplete
Indeed, that is precisely the military's line: That the suicide rate among male regular-force soldiers in the Canadian Forces is not very much higher than the rate in the civilian population.
But the data is incomplete and the military has until this year failed to keep track of the statistics for female soldiers and has also not kept an eye on the number for Canadian Forces reservists, a group considered by some to be particularly vulnerable.
Still, the government says it’s doing all it can.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson earlier this week said the government has made it a priority to reach out to ill and injured members of the Canadian Forces.
“We work with them,” he said. “There's been unprecedented investments in this area. We have the highest ratio of mental health workers of all our NATO allies. We're getting the job done and we'll continue to support the men and women in uniform and veterans in this country.”
Last year, the government set aside more than $11 million to hire more psychological support staff. It’s conducted interviews and selected nearly 80 new qualified candidates, but none have been hired yet.
Meantime, the wait list for psychological care in the Canadian Forces is now 28 days long.
It's that fact, alongside others that has perhaps led soldiers to start shouldering some of the burden of care themselves.
"I think the recent spate of suicides has had a really tremendous impact on the entire military community," said Harding.
“Unfortunately it's not unprecedented, but it's always a shock when it happens. And knowing that the Christmas season is the one that traditionally does see an uptick in people suffering from depression, and particularly from suicide and other self-harm, I think it's more than anything galvanized us to start acting and passing word along on this.”
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