OTTAWA — A landmark study from Veterans Affairs Canada appears to confirm what many have long feared: Canadians who have served in uniform are at greater risk of taking their own lives than members of the general public.
The results showed that the risk of suicide among male veterans of all ages was 36 per cent higher than men who had never served in the Canadian military, which was cause for concern.
But even more worrying was that the risk was significantly higher among younger male veterans, with those under 25 being 242 per cent more likely to kill themselves than non-veterans of the same age.
The risk among female veterans was also found to be alarmingly high — 81 per cent greater than for women who hadn't served. Age was not considered as great a factor when it came to women who had worn a uniform.
The statistical study did not delve into the reasons veterans are at greater risk of suicide than the general population, though it did say that the trend has been largely consistent for decades.
Researchers used 37 years of data from Veterans Affairs, the Department of National Defence and Statistics Canada to review the records of more than 200,000 former service members between 1976 and 2012.
Statistics Canada was unable to provide more recent data, which is why the study did not go past 2012, though officials say they intend to continue adding to the information as more numbers become available.
The study is the first of its kind and appears to confirm what until now has been only anecdotal evidence suggesting that those who have served in the military are more likely to kill themselves.
The federal government has promised to roll out more services and support to serving and retired military personnel through a new suicide prevention strategy, which was released last month.
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said officials will now study the results and try to find ways to improve that strategy — and ultimately cut down on the number of military and veteran suicides.
"Every one of those numbers is a life," O'Regan said outside the House of Commons on Thursday.
"You can't stop repeating that because you're talking about friends, you're talking about family, you're talking about people within the military community where these things really resonate."
While there have long been suspicions that the suicide rate among veterans was higher than the general population, Queen's University psychiatry professor Diane Groll said the results were nonetheless surprising.
That's because despite concerns about the number of suicides among some segments of the military, especially the army, the overall rate among all active service members has been statistically similar to the general public.
"So I guess I would have assumed that given there is no difference in the active military, there probably wasn't this big of a difference in the veterans," said Groll, an expert on mental health in the military and police forces.
"My mindset was: Yes, it seems to be a lot more, anecdotally, but it comes down to coverage, so you don't know until the hard, cold stats come out."
Groll could not say why it has taken the government so long to conduct such a study, particularly if the suicide rate among veterans has been greater than the rest of the population for decades.
And she acknowledged that the results leave more questions than answers, including the reasons why veterans are more likely to take their own lives — and how to address the issue.
"But without having the baseline numbers, you know nothing," Groll said. "You can't do anything without the baseline information."