I have been a military spouse for 20 years. My husband is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress and comorbid major depression. He has suicidal and homicidal thoughts. I am testifying today on behalf of a family that is suffering the repercussions of a care system that is, in my opinion, not very effective. I am the mother of three children. My husband has been sent to the battlefield twice. We have also been transferred outside of Canada. Despite the fact that his symptoms were already present, he passed the screening test with flying colours.
In 2007, upon his return, he voluntarily went to seek help by climbing the famous steps that are still today known as “the stairs of shame”, unfortunately. We soon realized that if we continued the process, there would be repercussions on his career; he would have fewer promotions and no more transfers. It would be impossible for him to return to the theatre of operations, which was very important to him.
Most members of the Canadian Armed Forces derive their identity to an extent from belonging to the forces, which was the case for my husband. So he was afraid of losing his identity. In fact, he even got the psychologist he saw to not put any notes in his file. He asked not to receive medication or an orange flag if he ever received a promotion, which was granted. It is not normal for people who need care to have to choose between the shame of being singled out and care to feel better with their families and within themselves.
Afterwards, the symptoms worsened: nightmares, irritability, dissociation, verbal aggression, flashbacks, migraines, depression, hypervigilance, isolation, and so on. I could go on, but I will stop there. They try to make us believe that it's less taboo, but it's not.
Time passed and the impact on my family was disturbing. So I took my spouse to the military hospital. He had physical symptoms that gave me a way in. Once there, he was seen in the emergency department. I took the opportunity to go upstairs, to the mental health services, to ask for help. At first, I was refused help because I was not a serving military member. My spouse had to give his consent so that I could talk about what was going on at home. So I said that I was absolving myself of any responsibility if something happened, because I was talking about risks to his life. My spouse was eventually taken into care, although he did not give his consent.
In the end, what I thought was life-saving was the beginning of the end, in our case. There was a confrontation about his symptoms, and right away, on the first day, he cracked impressively. They had to get us out of the place. Desks went flying. In short, we returned home with a small pamphlet under our arm explaining that my spouse was suffering from post-traumatic stress—it was jargon for us—without giving us any further guidance.
My children suffered collateral damage in several ways. When I asked for support, we were directed to a place that was more than an hour away from my home. I would like to remind you that I am the mother of three children and a full-time social worker in the health field. In addition, we were told that we each had to have a different worker, so I had to drive three hours, three times a week in the same week. It was impossible for me.
Since there is no universality of services in all regions, it is difficult for people who do not live near large bases to access them. Here, I'm talking about families. Certainly there is care for the military member, but for the family, the relatives, the parents and the children, it's more difficult. Moreover, it is very difficult, both for the member of the forces and for the family, to obtain service in their mother tongue. That's something we really need to work on. My spouse had to tell his story in a language that is not his own. It's not always easy to try to express emotions in a language that is not yours. Some things were sometimes misunderstood.
They gave my husband a lot of medication but never really addressed the problem. It was as if they wanted to suppress the symptoms of the soldier to keep him functional until he was medically released, so that the civilian system would take care of him in a slightly more comprehensive way.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are no longer necessarily useful in the workplace, so they are put aside. In fact, something a bit shocking happened in our case. My husband has had to be cared for in psychiatric units several times. We went to the Bellwood Centre, the Douglas Institute and Ste. Anne’s Hospital, which we were told was a specialized hospital for veterans with mental health problems.
During a crisis, they called in the middle of the night to tell me that my spouse's case was too serious for the specialized mental health centre. The solution I was offered was to send him home. They felt that my three children and I were better equipped than the centre, which had had to take over because his case was too serious for me. Today, I still feel some resentment. The therapy was never completed. My spouse was sent home during the stabilization phase. There was never any treatment or psychotherapy phase during this hospitalization.
Why aren't families at the centre of care plans? At the very least, there should be a post-deployment consultation to check for unusual symptoms or abnormal behaviours. Why is it that we are not really consulted during interventions when we could help to create a much more realistic picture of the situation?
Sometimes, the sick person may not want to or simply cannot make people understand the gravity of their symptoms. Moreover, this type of situation is not always adapted to the reality of families. A lot of medication is given to try to maintain a functional level, as I was saying earlier, but there are important consequences for those around them. My husband, for example, developed diabetes. We had consulted the military psychiatrist, who had prescribed medications with drug interactions. The pharmacist pointed out that diabetes could be the result, but we were told the opposite. Eventually the diabetes set in. After hospitalization in another psychiatric centre, the medication was stopped and the diabetes disappeared.
In July 2020, my husband was really not well. I emailed his general practitioner, who works at the centre in the area where we currently live. I wrote to him that although I am not a military doctor—indeed, I normally try not to get involved in that, as we don't really have a place there—I demanded an answer, because I really feared for my husband's life. I wrote this email on July 19 and I didn't receive a response until several days later. Although no one had seen my spouse, I was asked to agree to an increase in his medication. This was the solution that was proposed.
On July 27, my husband attempted suicide. He wanted to die. He was rescued in extremis by police officers as he was about to jump off a bridge in our city. Next to the bridge, there were military things that he had brought. He had folded his clothes, and on the pile of clothes he had put his military ID card. For him, going out in 3B service dress was indeed unacceptable.
The lieutenant of the police department in my area wanted to contact the Canadian Forces on the phone to make a report, because the police officers had been rattled by my husband's comments and his distress. Of course, it didn't work. For my part, I gave my consent and my husband's service number, but the lieutenant was never able to make a report to anyone.
So they sent my husband to a civilian centre for four months, since no one in the military could help us refer him to another centre. His crisis state was too severe for Ste. Anne's Hospital. So we had to stay on the civilian side, although these people are not at all equipped to deal with post-traumatic stress of this kind.
I sought psychological help for my children and me. However, after two sessions, I was told that since my husband was not yet a veteran, I did not have access to refundable care. They demanded that I reimburse them and come back for a consultation when my husband was a veteran. Unfortunately, I did not choose the date of my husband's suicide attempt. Of course, I felt really alone, left to my own devices.
What is even more shocking is that I later found out, after requesting help from the employee assistance program, that the social worker to whom our file was assigned was not allowed to provide us with care because her husband is in the Canadian Forces. She would have been somewhat familiar with our reality. She asked for an exemption to be able to treat us, but her managers refused. She was told that they preferred that services be provided by people who were a little less familiar with military reality in order to maintain impartiality. In my opinion, this is nonsense, because the regular workers have no idea what military life, and life for the families, is like.
Last December, as my husband was about to be given a 3B release, I reported to his team that he suspected he had been sexually assaulted while deployed to an operational theatre. I was told that I had to go to his civilian doctor, as his care was no longer under their purview. We're talking about a sexual assault here. I was a little stunned by this answer.
The new doctor had not built a relationship of trust with my spouse. It was a new transition. I found it completely absurd. They wash their hands of it when they have destroyed a life and a career.
The return to civilian life is hell, especially for sick people. They do not receive enough support. My spouse is completely disabled, and he can't fill out the 88 forms needed to move from one stage to the next. We don't have any help, and I don't know anything about military forms. It has been a very laborious and difficult process.
During my husband's sick leave, they wanted to force him to use his vacation time. He was unable to take a holiday, but they wouldn't pay him back. We had to fight, and we finally won.
You always have to fight. You have to fight with Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces. You have to fight for medication. You have to fight for care in a facility focused on military post-traumatic stress disorder. It is very tiring and it weighs heavily on the shoulders of the loved ones.
Today, my husband is no longer a soldier, but a veteran since December. But he wanted to die because he was ashamed that he could not continue his military career; that's saying something.
The transition is difficult even for people who are not suffering from post-traumatic stress. Try to imagine how difficult it can be for someone who loses their whole identity because of such a severe disorder.
It is imperative that we, as families, become more involved in the care process. We are the ones who live with the consequences on a daily basis. We are the eyes and ears. We are the caregivers.
I don't know if you are aware of this, but the member's spouse must give permission before he or she can receive service. In Valcartier, they even go so far as to ask the member to register his or her spouse to participate in the care. Do you really think that those who wish to hide their health problem, violent spouses or anyone who has any independence will give their consent at the risk of being unmasked? The answer is no, of course not.
I would like to mention, however, that there is an excellent peer support program, the operational stress injury social support group, or OSISS.
The distress of families is real and just as important as the distress of the military member. Access to services must be facilitated. Sometimes, continuity of services is also an issue, whether in terms of reassignment or release. Post-traumatic stress is like a tsunami, it drags everyone along.
This year, I decided to create, on social media, a group for women who live with spouses who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Five minutes after the creation of the group, it already had 65 members. These are women who, like me, have not found services anywhere else. We feel really alone.
The lack of service, support, access and concerted care defeats too many people. Unfortunately, in our case, my spouse's mental health problems will have undone 20 years of marriage. Although not in conflict, we are currently in the process of separating, and he understands why. I can no longer continue to bear, by myself, the burden of the heavy work he has to do on himself.