Capital News Online: The politics of health

“This is going to sound very weird—it’s a simple life,” Trevor Petersen, a veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder awareness advocate, says about life in the military.

Petersen, 43, returned home from a tour in Afghanistan in 2007 to a very different lifestyle.

“Get up. Do your job. Eat. Sleep. Get up. Do your job. Eat. Sleep. I mean, that’s your life. It’s very simple because we don’t have to deal with the normal things in life and then we come back and you’re dealing with the post-traumatic stress, it’s not that simple anymore,” he says.

He was diagnosed with PTSD later that year.

The recently-elected Liberal government promised during the campaign to improve mental health services and resources for veterans, like Petersen, who suffer from PTSD or other mental-health disorders.

PTSD is a mental illness brought on by exposure to trauma. Symptoms may include (but are not limited to) re-experiencing the traumatic event, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping and changes in mood.

“I got back home, like most other veterans, I’m a very proud person, so I knew something was wrong but I wasn’t ready to admit that I had PTSD. “

— Trevor Petersen

The facts, stats and promises

Petersen is not alone. About one-fifth of Canadian veterans experience a diagnosed mental-health disorder at some point in their lives, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. Nearly 10 per cent of war zone veterans in Canada will experience PTSD, according to the CMHA (British Columbia division), and, in fact, the number of Canadian veterans with PTSD has nearly tripled over the last eight years.

Veterans advocates hope that a new government will improve mental health services for veterans. During the campaign, the Liberals promised to, among other things:

  • Re-open nine Veterans Affairs offices;
  • Hire 400 new service delivery staff and additional mental-health professionals;
  • Set aside $20 million to create two new centres of excellence in veterans’ care; and
  • Ensure that one of these centers will specialize in mental health, PTSD and related issues for veterans and first responders.

With these promises in mind, what should the Liberal government be focusing on over the coming years? Sources say transition is a key concern.

There is an underestimated gap between military and civilian life, and as soldiers return home, they may struggle to adapt to the complete change in lifestyle. The transition can be hard and long.

“The transition was extremely hard for me. I’m still in the process of transition,” Petersen says.

“I’ve had to relearn, rethink and rebuild a whole new life.”

Petersen has since become an advocate for PTSD awareness through his initiative, ‘Paddling with PTSD.’ In 2014, Petersen paddleboarded the lengthy journey from Edmonton to Winnipeg. The following year, he travelled along Lake Ontario and the Rideau River system to raise awareness about PTSD and money for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Talking about transition

Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, says he recognizes the challenge of transition from one life to another.

“To return from the theatre of war or peacekeeping in these situations is not easy and we recognize that at Veterans Affairs.”

— Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr

“We want to close the seam, close the gap, to catch those men and women who are leaving military service to the Veterans Affairs office and our staff are here to ease that transition so they’re not feeling isolated, feeling like they’re not contributing when they leave active duty and I think that’s going to be an important piece,” Hehr says.

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent agrees. “We have to create some hope for them that they can see that there is something positive in the future that they can face. So, the transition mechanism and process is very important,” he says.

“What’s happening right now, even for somebody that is not injured, just the change in lifestyle is affecting them. Imagine if you have to go through that with a physical or a psychological injury.”

Outspoken Ottawa-based veterans advocate Sean Bruyea says a lot needs to be done in order to revamp the transition process.

“If we are trying to convince soldiers who are told their whole career, ‘To be a civilian is bad. To think like a civilian is bad. To be lazy like a civilian is bad,’ and then all of a sudden send them out to trust civilians? Give me a break. It’s completely irresponsible the way that we are transitioning people out of the military,” Bruyea says.

“If we send them into the military, we put them into basic training to become military members. Why are we not giving them basic training to become civilian members again?”

Education on all fronts

Bruyea says education and awareness is key to improving the transition process for both veterans and civilians.

“The civilian population knows very little about the details of what it means to be in military culture. What I firmly believe is that what we need to do is we have to offer a situation where both civilians and the military learn about each other,” he says.

Parent also says there needs to be an understanding between the two cultures.

“The programs of the future should be veteran-centric and they should be geared to help veterans, not to make administration easier for the department,” he says. “And that’s what we hope in the future, that we have programs that are simple and open and transparent and that people understand the difference in moving from one culture to another,” he says.

Dace Marsh, director of development and communications for Veterans Transition Network, says education is important not only for the public and workers, but also within the military about expectations after service.

“We’d like to see more education about working with military personnel, with the language that they speak, with the level of trauma that they often face,” he says.

“What we’d like to see as an organization is not just more services for veterans but more comfortableness addressing that in the military as well. As they are leaving, they are being prepared for what they are going to encounter,” Marsh says.

“Probably leaving the military is the one where their expectations are the most unmet. They don’t really have a good sense of what they’re going to do after, what they can do after.”

Tim Simboli, executive director of CMHA Ottawa, says we need a “multi-pronged approach” that focuses on education and support services.

“If you look at people as they move up the ranks, each one of those is a point of stress. And then of course the biggest stress is people leaving the military.”

— Tim Simboli

“If we could see more prevention, more intervention, more education, a little bit more in each of those areas will go a long way.”

“There really is a smorgasbord, a buffet, of things that they need to do,” Simboli says. “No one thing fixes it all.”

Photo illustration © Kate Tenenhouse

Kate Tenenhouse is a fourth-year journalism student with a double minor in political science and history at Carleton University. Focusing on arts, health and community reporting, Kate has previously written for Ottawa Life Magazine and the Ottawa Star. You can learn more about Kate at www.katetenenhouse.com.

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