Seeking help shows strength

Article / January 25, 2017 / Project number: 17-0043

By Karla Gimby, Army Public Affairs

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Ottawa, Ontario — On January 25, 2017, Bell Let’s Talk day will give members of the Canadian Army and Canadians at large the opportunity to talk about significant matters surrounding mental health. 

Even though mental illness is considered an invisible disease, it is one of the most widespread health issues in the country with consequences for everyone. The Canadian Institute of Health Research says that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, but most will be cautious about talking to a co-worker, friend or family member about the issue, let alone seek treatment. For anyone dealing with mental illness, stigma is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. This perceived stigma is the leading reason why two-thirds of people living with a mental illness do not seek help.

“In today’s fast-paced environment and with our great operational demands, my goal is to ensure all members are aware of the warning signs of mental illness so they can seek treatment as early as possible,” said Colonel Annie Bouchard, Canadian Army Surgeon, the Army’s top medical officer. “We know that the earlier people get treatment, the better the outcomes are.”

The Canadian Army (CA) recognizes that its members are not immune to mental illness and want people to join the conversation to educate and increase awareness of these issues that affect us all. Military members deal with mental illness, as do all Canadians. Those who have not experienced mental illness first-hand are likely to know someone who has or will have a mental illness.

“It is a goal of the Army to create a responsive system designed to encourage members to come forward and be more willing to discuss mental health issues as soon as they arise,” said Col Bouchard. This can be difficult for military members in particular, who might have the impression they need to be tough and resilient under any circumstances. “Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength,” she said.

“One of the guiding principles of Canadian Armed Forces leadership is, “Know your soldiers and promote their welfare,” said Colonel Stephane Dubois, Director of Army Personnel Management. “By the early 2000s, many of the Canadian Armed Force’s personnel policies were outdated and no longer relevant to its current demographic and operating environment. The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Army leadership acknowledged this and have committed a great deal of resources, effort and energy into evolving its policies, systems, programs and perspectives to provide enhanced care and compassion for our soldiers.”

With a view that action starts at the top, the CA has been particularly active in encouraging its leaders to understand and foster the well-being – including the mental health – of their soldiers. Initiatives aimed at leaders in particular have included senior officer symposiums, as well as guidance and information sessions on mental health aspects and the resources available to address them, as part of the Command Team course provided to future Commanding Officers and Regimental Sergeants-Major of both the Regular and Reserve forces.

Col Bouchard agrees that one key step to creating awareness is through widespread education. For this reason, the CA has participated with the Canadian Armed Forces in the development of many resources and programs aimed at educating its members about a variety of mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

These resources include:

  • The Canadian Armed Forces’ Road to Mental Readiness program which educates members at critical points in their careers and prior to a deployment to foster resiliency and wellness.
  • Courses and activities offered by the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Personnel Support Programs to educate about and destigmatize mental illness.
  • MISSION:Ready, an all-in-one website for military members and their families was launched by the CA in 2015 that provides links to a multitude of mental health resources and features leadership coaching to build awareness and understanding in terms of all aspects of soldiers’ health and well-being.

The efforts to educate Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel on the early indicators of distress in order to encourage early care seeking have had a positive impact. A Statistics Canada survey done in 2013 showed there have been significant increases in members seeking care for mental health issues since the survey was first conducted in 2002.

Program evaluation reports from the Health Services Group, Directorate of Mental Health also show that there have been significant positive changes since 2005 in the knowledge and confidence of CAF personnel to understand mental health and coping strategies, to obtain assistance for a mental health problem, and indicates an increased understanding that it is possible for a member who is facing a mental illness to become healthy again.

Every soldier is taught about mental health issues both pre- and post-deployment to educate them to be cognizant of the warning signs. If mental illness is better understood, there will be less of a stigma associated with it.

To that end, the Army is increasing its efforts to demonstrate to its members that mental health issues are legitimate conditions in spite of the fact that it is often invisible to others. Some of the ways in which this is being done include:

  • Recalibrating the Canadian Army’s relationship with the Joint Personnel Support Unit organization and its soldiers who have been posted to it. The Canadian Army’s intent is to  foster a wider understanding of mental health issues to increase support toward ill and injured members and to encourage robust return-to-work programs within units. This approach will allow colleagues to see that their fellow soldiers can address and overcome issues with proper assistance.
  • Promoting the Sentinels Program, which is a group of non-professionals of all ranks who are trained to spot concerns and assist their peers with finding mental health support or services.
  • The CAF is conducting medical and personnel research with a variety of international organizations, other militaries, Canadian universities and government departments such as Veterans Affairs Canada. The results of these studies are being incorporated into treatments for ill and injured members and to develop progressive policies to better serve the needs of all members including those suffering from operational stress injuries.

“Greater awareness and understanding of mental illness will increase the number of people who will feel comfortable and supported to seek the assistance they need. The Army has all the resources and tools to help and support its members no matter the issue,” noted Col Bouchard.

She added, “ You can consult your clinician but you can also get assistance through the Canadian Forces Medical Assistance Program or Employee Assistance Program, or ask a colleague for help through the Sentinels Program. We are all here to help, you just need to ask.”

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