Last year, the U.S. Army’s suicide rate was higher than that of the general population for the first time since the Vietnam war, a fact one of Canada’s leading experts in mental health finds “disturbing.” The military suicide rate grew to 20.2 per 100,000 people from 12.7 per 100,000 in 2005. Another dramatic figure: the suicide rate among U.S. veterans aged 20 to 24 was four times higher than non-veterans of that age.

In Canada, the suicide rate is even higher, and has risen more dramatically: it was 18.75 per 100,000 in 2005, and grew to 23.37 in 2008.

Imagine the anguish of Private Frédéric Couture from Quebec, who committed suicide a year after returning from Afghanistan. While there, he had stepped on an explosive device, and later had his left foot amputated. He had reportedly attempted suicide before.

Many soldiers who return home from war suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, high-risk drinking and suicidal tendencies.

“Death by suicide is often preceded by severe bouts of depression,” says Dr. Anthony Phillips, Scientific Director of the CIHR-IRSC Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Depression can be treated effectively by both medication and cognitive/behavioural therapies, he adds.

The challenge is to remove the stigma associated with mental ill health and to encourage military personnel to seek professional help.

“Contrary to popular belief, mental ill health can be treated just as effectively as many other health challenges,” he says. “What is needed are the resources and personnel to provide the necessary clinical care.”

The good news is that understanding and preventing suicide is very high on the radar screens of both the Canadian and U.S. military.

“There are very encouraging signs that the current leadership within the Canadian Armed Forces, from the Minister of Defence to High Command, are beginning to recognize and address the many mental health problems that affect the men and women in our Armed Forces, along with members of their families,” says Dr. Phillips.

In the U.S., the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health recently announced they would conduct a five-year, $50 million effort to better identify the factors that cause some soldiers to commit suicide.



Correction - Nov. 19, 2009, 10:47 a.m. EST: A previous version of this article made a correlation between two unrelated facts. The information has since been removed.