Executive Summary

Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy
Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada

Suicide prevention is a major public health priority for the Government of Canada. The Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention defines an overall approach for government and its partners, as well as some areas where efforts will be focused.

One of these areas is Canada’s military community, including serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces, our many Veterans, and their families. Because of the unique conditions and stresses that come with military service, and the sometimes difficult transition out of active military service, the Prime Minister directed the Ministers responsible for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to develop a Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy. Canada’s Defence Policy, Strong, Secured, Engaged, reaffirmed this direction.

“Suicidality” is the term for suicide (to end one’s life intentionally), suicidal behaviour (including suicide attempts) and suicidal ideation (having thoughts about suicide). Both CAF and VAC have been working on suicidality and mental health for many years, to assure the well-being of members and Veterans, and provide assistance in times of crisis to reduce the risk of suicide. The creation of this joint strategy is also aimed at continuous improvement to collect data, recognize system gaps and improve service delivery.

There is not a single or simple cause of suicide. Therefore, no single program can address the issue or eliminate all risks. Rather, action is required on a wide range of fronts to build resilience, treat mental and physical illness, open lines of communication, and support economic and social well-being. By recognizing where gaps may exist, we are committing to closing them so our members and Veterans and their families are able to get the supports they need. Only through concerted and comprehensive action can real progress be made. Together, CAF and VAC have identified seven lines of effort that define the key areas of focus that, combined, can help achieve the complex goal of overall suicide prevention.

Suicide in the military context

Suicide rates for the Canadian Armed Forces are broadly in keeping with those of the general population. We have less comprehensive information about Veterans available to us, but we are working to improve our knowledge of the Veteran community. Based on the information available, it would seem that suicide can be more common among Veterans as compared to the Canadian population. Why is this? There is no single answer. Instead we must look at the various factors that influence suicidal behaviour. While not all suicides are preventable, even one such loss is too many. We are working to do everything we can for Canada’s military members and Veterans.

We can make a difference

Our evolving understanding of suicidal behaviour indicates that – although every case is unique – mental illness, acute stress, or chronic cumulative stress can set some individuals on a path to suicide. Suicidal behaviour is often the cumulative outcome of multi-dimensional factors such as relationship loss, isolation, trauma, substance abuse, or feelings of burdensomeness that can lead to a suicidal act. The critical point to be drawn from this understanding is that suicide is not a pre-determined outcome, and that there are many points of intervention to move an individual away from a suicidal path. While it is impossible to prevent every suicide, we can take meaningful actions to reduce risks and build protective factors, support, and resilience among our comrades and loved ones. These points of intervention guide our joint strategy and inform the many actions described in this document.

Taking action

Looking at the big picture, we can highlight some major programs and actions:

  • The Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) program offers confidential peer support to CAF members, Veterans and their families impacted by an operational stress injury. The support is provided by trained peer support and family peer support coordinators and volunteers, who typically have first-hand experience with these injuries.
  • Recently, the CAF implemented a mental health awareness and resilience training program, the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR), to increase early awareness of distress, encourage care-seeking, normalize mental health challenges, and provide evidence-based skills to manage the demands of service and daily life. R2MR has contributed to a significant increase in care-seeking among CAF personnel as well as continued erosion of stigma and other barriers to care.
  • VAC greatly expanded its face-to-face service presence, reopening all nine previously closed VAC offices, opening a new office in Surrey, BC, and undertaking regular on-the-ground outreach to Veterans and families in remote and northern communities.
  • Telemedicine has been made available at the majority of Canadian Forces Health Services (CFHS) clinics to provide access to specialists, in the language of choice, regardless of geographical location. This capability can also provide sub-specialty care (such as mental health care for personnel employed in remote geographic areas) and to manage waiting lists more effectively. The VAC-funded Operational Stress Injury Network has expanded to 11 clinics across Canada, each offering telemental health services, with many satellite sites for Veterans in remote regions.
  • CAF and VAC have created a jointly-managed Seamless Transition Task Force, with four dedicated implementation teams, to ensure a coordinated approach and oversight of all key elements of the CAF-VAC transition, from CAF member to Veteran, and to make sure that all members and Veterans get the services they need as they leave active military service.
  • Leveraging the expertise, best practices and lessons learned from the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) and its partners, the CAF Transition Group (CAF TG) is being established to promote a seamless transition into post-military life for our members. This will reduce the stressors on our members as they transfer and include suicide prevention considerations. VAC personnel will be integrated into the process.
  • VAC has hired more than 400 new full-time staff to ensure high levels of quality service, and is working to fulfill a commitment to bring its Veteran to Case Manager ratio to 25:1, to guarantee that all Veterans get the service and attention they need, with reduced wait times and fewer barriers.
  • CAF has entered into long-term partnership with private sector organizations to build awareness and break down the stigma associated with mental illness.
  • VAC is making four-year investments of $4M in a new Veteran Emergency Fund to assist Veterans in urgent and unique situations, and $13.9M in a new Veteran and Family Well-Being Fund, that will promote innovative research and services.
  • In order to better understand the biological underpinnings of mental illness and to leverage technology for more effective interventions, we are researching new brain-imaging capabilities (PET MRI, PEER study, etc). We are also exploring emerging treatments that specifically target suicidal ideation.

This Joint Suicide Prevention Strategy details our Vision, our Mission, our lines of effort (as outlined on page 15), and the many actions undertaken to realise this vision. It aligns with the Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention, builds on the recent Expert Panel Report, and draws from the latest research on suicide, to create a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention for military members and Veterans. The CAF and VAC maintain the strongest commitment to suicide prevention and will continue to work together, now under the aegis of this Joint Strategy, to support and serve all members, Veterans, and their families.

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