Panel looks at veteran mental health

Over 400 delegates attend forum at the Ambassador hotel Tuesday night

Senator Romeo Dallaire speaks about mental health and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on veterans.
Senator Romeo Dallaire speaks about mental health and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on veterans.

Research on veteran mental health programs will save lives, according to Senator Romeo Dallaire.

Dallaire spoke at a panel on mental health as part of the second annual Military and Veterans Health Research Forum that ran from Monday to Wednesday.

The forum, held at the Ambassador Hotel, was hosted by the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research, an organization co-founded by Queen’s and the Royal Canadian Military College last year.

Dallaire was the UN’s Commander of the Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In 2005, he became a Senator, representing Quebec.

In his address to 425 delegates, Dallaire emphasized the importance of mental health research and the need for appropriate long-term mental health care for veterans and their families. He said there’s a specific need to look at the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, feelings of detachment and difficulty concentrating. According to a recent article published in the Toronto Star, between four and six per cent of Canadian Forces members currently suffer from the disorder.

“Not all wounds are visible,” Dallaire said in his address. “Mental health at large, both garrison life and operational life ... is an injury that does not necessarily disappear with time.”

Though his involvement in Rwanda ended 17 years ago, Dallaire still experiences PTSD and continues to take medication for it. Hearing things like his young granddaughter crying can trigger the effects of his disorder.

“As she started to cry [it] brought me back to the moment of seeing and listening to events of Rwanda,” he said.

Since the Second World War, Dallaire said the identity of soldiers has changed, referring to teenage female suicide bombers as an example.

Because of this, the treatment of veterans also has to adapt, he said.

“Is there a different angle to meeting the female veteran? And what about the family who has two veterans,” he said.

Though research on these topics is still in preliminary stages, Dallaire said it’s fundamental to saving veteran lives.

According to a Canadian Forces report, 16 per cent of their personnel have seriously considered suicide. The same document reports a Statistics Canada survey which found 2.2 per cent of men and 5.6 per cent of women in the Canadian Forces have attempted suicide.

“Suicide is a reality,” he said. “This injury can be terminal.”

Following Dallaire, Junaid Bhatti, from the McGill University Douglas Hospital Research Centre, spoke about increasing alcohol use in the Canadian Forces — 24 per cent of suicides by Canadian Forces members were alcohol-related.

Panelist Peggy Shannon, chair of Ryerson University’s Theatre School, spoke of the gendered use of Ancient Greek plays and poems to treat female veterans through drama therapy.

“[It] represents an international opportunity to recognize and honour women’s service and for women to share their own unique stories,” Shannon said.

Patrizia Albanese, a sociology professor at Ryerson University, discussed how adolescents whose parents are deployed take on adult household responsibilities.

“We believe that we need to pay more attention to what young people are telling us,” she said, adding that the emotional unavailability of some veteran parents can affect the mental health of children.

Rounding out the panel was Rohan Ganguli from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Ganguli said their provincially funded psychological trauma program doesn’t have involvement with the Canadian Forces, despite treating many of the same mental health issues veterans face.

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