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Fifteen military suicides reported in 2018 despite new prevention strategy

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OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has promised to redouble efforts to prevent suicide in the Canadian Forces after new figures showed more than a dozen members of the military took their own lives last year.
The deaths coincided with new services…


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  • OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has promised to redouble efforts to prevent suicide in the Canadian Forces after new figures showed more than a dozen members of the military took their own lives last year.

    The deaths coincided with new services and supports aimed at preventing such tragedies, underlining the complexity of the challenge facing the military and government.

    Fifteen Canadian Forces members killed themselves in 2018, according to the Department of National Defence.

    That was one fewer than the previous year and represented the fourth year in a row in which the number of military suicides declined since a rash of suicides in 2013 cast a spotlight on the issue.

    It nonetheless fell short of a breakthrough after the National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada unveiled a new suicide-prevention strategy in late 2017.

    The strategy included promises to improve the services and support available to current military members and veterans in the hopes of increasing awareness and reducing the number of suicides in both populations.

    Defence Department spokesman Derek Abma said there has been “an impressive amount of work” done to better support the mental health of military members and their families since the strategy was launched.

    That includes adding more medical staff, training personnel on how to respond if someone shows warning signs for suicide and introducing new measures to ease the transition to civilian life for those leaving the Forces.

    Sajjan, however, admitted in a statement on Wednesday that “we must always strive to do better,” adding: “Every time we lose a member of our Canadian Armed Forces to suicide, it is felt by us all. One suicide is too many.

    “While there is no simple solution or easy answer, we will continue to evolve and improve the strategy as we expand our understanding of suicide and mental health and move forward on implementing solutions.”

    Of the 15 military personnel who died by suicide last year, 13 were full-time members while the other two were reservists. The figures do not say how many were men or women.

    While the Canadian Forces for years resisted suggestions service members were more at risk of suicide than the general public, a landmark study from Veterans Affairs Canada last year suggested the opposite.

    The results, based on a comprehensive review of records from 1976 to 2012, showed that the risk of suicide among male veterans of all ages was 36 per cent higher than in men who had never served in the Canadian military.

    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 found to be as significant a factor when it came to female veterans.

    At the same time, more than 155 active service members have taken their own lives since 2010. That nearly equals the 158 killed while serving in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014.

    National Defence’s suicide-prevention strategy was endorsed by a variety of groups, including the Canadian Psychological Association, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

    Some veterans’ groups and advocates, however, remained unsure at the time about how it would be implemented.

    —Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

    Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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    ‘Dignity and wisdom’: Chief justice praises Gascon after final high-court case

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    OTTAWA — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon received a standing ovation Thursday after hearing his final case on the high court.
    Gascon graciously thanked his family and colleagues, saying it is an immense privilege to be a judge.
    Last month, Gascon,…


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  • OTTAWA — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon received a standing ovation Thursday after hearing his final case on the high court.

    Gascon graciously thanked his family and colleagues, saying it is an immense privilege to be a judge.

    Last month, Gascon, 58, announced plans to retire for unspecified personal and family reasons.

    He said this week he has long struggled with anxiety and depression, and while he has generally been able to manage the illness, it recently led to a difficult episode.

    Gascon said he suffered a panic attack before he briefly went missing May 8. He profusely apologized for the uncharacteristic absence, citing the effects of his difficult career decision and a change in medication.

    In the crowded courtroom Thursday, Chief Justice Richard Wagner praised Gascon as an exceptional person.

    “Our esteemed colleague has served Canadians with dignity and wisdom,” Wagner said. “His commitment and friendship will be missed.”

    Justice Sheilah Martin shed tears.

    Gascon officially steps down Sept. 15 but will continue to have input into judgments flowing from cases he has heard, as long as they are released within six months of his retirement date.

    Judgments released after mid-March will note that Gascon had no input into the decision.

    “My work as a judge is far from complete,” he said. “I can assure you that I will continue.”

    The Canadian Press


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    What are panic attacks and what causes them? A look at the issue

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    TORONTO — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon, who briefly went missing in Ottawa last week, recently explained that his disappearance was caused by a panic attack. Here’s a look at the science and the stigma around the issue:
    WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?


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  • TORONTO — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon, who briefly went missing in Ottawa last week, recently explained that his disappearance was caused by a panic attack. Here’s a look at the science and the stigma around the issue:

    WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?

    Andrew Jacobs, a psychologist with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, said panic attacks are “a sudden surge in anxiety or an uncomfortable feeling that go from zero to 60 within a few minutes.” Panic attacks are defined by a certain set of symptoms that can include increased heart rates, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating and a fear the person is dying. Jacobs said a person must experience four out of 13 symptoms as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

    WHAT CAUSES AN ATTACK?

    The Canadian Mental Health Association says panic attacks can be brought on by stress, fatigue or even excessive exercise. Jacobs says there are two types of panic attacks: cued and uncued. “Cued attacks happen as a result of someone already being very worried or fearful of something that can escalate into panic,” he said. “Uncued, which feels like the panic attacks come literally out of nowhere — it can even happen in the middle of sleep.” Gascon said in his statement that on the afternoon he went missing, he was affected by both a change in medication and a “heart-rending career decision.” He announced in September he plans to retire.

    HOW DOES A PERSON COPE WITH A PANIC ATTACK?

    There are many options for treating anxiety and panic attacks, including medication and counselling. One in particular is called cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. According to St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, CBT can include such methods as confronting a feared situation, as well as breathing techniques and replacing anxious thoughts with realistic ones. In Gascon’s case, he said his recent episode had been “taken care of and treated with the necessary medical support.” 

    CAN YOU RETURN TO WORK AFTER A PANIC ATTACK?

    Gascon said in his statement that he is “fully capable” of performing his duties as a judge, and Chief Justice Richard Wagner said in his own statement that Gascon continues to have his “full support and confidence.” Jordan Friesen, the national director of workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association, said it should be “relatively simple” for Gascon to return to work, given that panic attacks tend to be time-limited. “I think the question becomes, for him and for his employer, is to understand what to do if a situation like that happens again,” said Friesen. “My hope would be that if he’s experiencing symptoms of a panic attack again that he’s able to go and identify this to his employer and seek appropriate support — much like you would if you were at work and started feeling ill with the flu.”

    HOW HAVE ATTITUDES TOWARD MENTAL HEALTH IN THE WORKPLACE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

    Last year, the family of late Supreme Court justice Gerald Le Dain went public with the story of his departure from the court in 1988, saying then-chief justice Brian Dickson forced Le Dain out after he was hospitalized with depression. A former top aide to Dickson had previously written that the decision was made because the Supreme Court had a heavy load at the time and could not handle being short a judge, but Le Dain’s family told CBC he would have returned after a short time off to recuperate. In contrast to the way Le Dain was allegedly treated, the response to Gascon’s public statement has been overwhelmingly positive. Wagner said Gascon’s explanation took courage, while Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould thanked him for sharing his struggle. Doron Gold, a former lawyer who now works as a psychotherapist with Homewood Health, said the response illustrates the way attitudes have shifted — though he added there’s still much work to be done. “Things are so much better than they used to be, and they’re so far away from where they should be,” said Gold.

    Adam Burns, The Canadian Press


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