Thank you for having me here to speak to you today. This is a topic that I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to speak on. I'm really happy to hear that this committee exists and is looking into this topic.
I've been with the Distress Centre for three and a half years. I started as a volunteer on the phone lines, moved up into being a volunteer supervisor, and now I've been full-time staff for a year, so I have a bit of an idea of what we do from the front lines, and also now in a role supporting volunteers as well as our callers.
I'll tell you a bit about what we do at the Distress Centre. We're a 24-hour, telephone-based service offering crisis intervention, suicide prevention, emotional support, information, and referrals to those who need this. Our service area is quite large. It covers Ottawa; Gatineau; Prescott-Russell; Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry; Renfrew; Frontenac; Grey Bruce; and Nunavut and Nunavik in northern Quebec. We have over 220 active volunteers staffing our lines 24/7/365; and in 2016 we answered over 50,000 calls.
To give you an idea of where we fit in the province, Ontario has 14 distress centres, including Ottawa's, that answered over 302,000 calls in 2015, with over 1,800 active volunteers.
To tie in to why we're here today, I can tell you that in 2016, 1,118 of our calls had some mention of the caller or a family member experiencing PTSD; and 12,448 out of 50,000 mentioned a caller or family member with a mood disorder, which is the most common mental health concern we hear about next to schizophrenia and psychosis.
While we don't track military personnel or veterans specifically in our demographics, I did want to tell you a bit about a caller whom we hear from quite regularly, just to bring a face to this issue for you. In the interests of confidentiality, I'll refer to him as John.
John lives within our service area, and he's in his fifties. He is divorced and he lives alone. John has been on tours as an army captain in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. John has lost all the members of his squad, either in active duty or by suicide upon their return back to Canada. He is constantly haunted by the flashbacks of the experience he endured carrying his buddies off the battlefield in body bags. He was discharged from the army a few years ago without a pension, and is struggling financially, having blown through all his savings upon his return here. He struggles with drinking and smoking, which are his go-to coping strategies; and he often calls us when he's inebriated. He's been diagnosed with PTSD, as well as a host of other physical ailments that leave him in constant pain.
John's calls to us waver between feelings of strength and resiliency for getting through what he's experienced in his life, balanced with a constant suicidal ideation and helplessness at the fact that he very often feels discarded and left behind. John feels like he's the last man standing.
He has admitted to us that he needs counselling, but has told us many times that he doesn't want anything to do with Veterans Affairs. He's dealt with them in the past and expresses frustration at the fact that they just put him on medication when what he really wants is someone to talk to and to share his experience with. He's told us that he feels the military has thrown him on the trash heap.
John's story is one of too many veterans who are suffering, and we can learn a lot from him.
The Internet tells me that 85% of the Canadian military are men. Men's mental health is becoming an increasingly recognized area of concern in our society, with men dying by suicide at a rate four times higher than women. Given this statistic, combined with the proportion of men in the military, it would make sense then to spend some time looking into how men specifically could be supported—not to discount the women, of course, they're important, too.
It's often said that men are less likely than women to reach out for help when they need to. This is seemingly true, but our statistics at the Distress Centre show that 40% of our callers in 2016 were men, which is almost a half. From this number, we can conclude that men will reach out for help when they feel safe to do so.
Our service is confidential, judgment-free, and not directly linked to a specific workplace, the government, the military, or any other professional body. Callers know they will receive respect and an actively listening volunteer on every call and that their stories will be heard, but not shared. No matter what they've done in their lives or what's happened to them, our volunteers will extend the same kindness and support to every caller they speak to.
In preparing for this presentation, I spoke to some colleagues, as well as some current members of the reserves, who told me that there is a broad range of useful resources that currently exist within the military, and I think this is great. These resources are well promoted in the workplace and encouraged by employers. What we hear most often from our callers is that the stigma attached to getting help is the biggest barrier that prevents anyone from seeking help. It's the workplace culture: the peer pressure to be strong and unbreakable members of the military, or proud and resilient veterans.
It was not too long ago, 2009 in fact, that the American army forced suicidal soldiers in basic training to wear a bright orange vest to identify themselves so they could have an eye kept on them. While this was intended to increase safety, it had the opposite effect of stigmatizing those who were struggling.
We often hear of the worry that people will have their job compromised at any mention of weakness, and it's the loss of identity that a person feels when they are stripped of their duties and thrown back into life without any support that's the most devastating. The dedication, strength, and willingness to sacrifice their bodies, lives, and minds for their country is something we must all honour in our vets and military members.
At the same time, we need to respect that with the loss of that ability to serve in the military comes an extreme loss of the sense of identity and self. These men and women are trained to act at peak performance on minimal amounts of rest. They have no choice but to become hypersensitive to the sights, sounds, and smells around them. Otherwise, they risk their lives and the lives of their comrades.
How can we reasonably expect our military personnel to return from such extraordinary circumstances and assimilate peacefully back into an ordinary life in Canadian society without help in doing so? We simply can't ask that of them.
Good mental health is more than just the absence of mental illness. Mental well-being or lack thereof comes from a combination of factors, and in speaking to how we can best support the transition between a career in the military and veteranhood, we must address all the factors that contribute to mental well-being, including financial stability, meaningful work, supportive personal relationships, family, and physical well-being. Alongside the obvious need for trained professionals to provide counselling or therapy comes the need for skills training, family support, income support, employment assistance, and couples counselling.
When John cannot afford more than a bowl of rice for dinner, how can we possibly expect him to obtain or maintain a job, or form meaningful relationships that will nurture and fulfill him? Human beings need safety and security above all else to survive and thrive.
A proactive approach would be helpful in transitioning military personnel into life after the military. I would put forth the recommendation that perhaps we could focus some time and energy into looking into how to better the supports that already exist, instead of creating new ones. It seems to me that there are resources out there that could be bolstered to better serve and become more accessible to the population that needs them. To break the barrier of stigma and promote safety in seeking help, perhaps partnering with a third party outside the military to provide support would be an avenue to explore.
There are over 100 distress centres across Canada, and a study reported on by Distress and Crisis Ontario has shown that volunteer-based support outperforms paid professional support on suicide phone lines. When compared, volunteers conducted more risk assessments, had more empathy, and were more respectful of callers, which in turn produced significantly better call outcome ratings than paid professionals on phone lines. It makes sense then that perhaps a partnership between Veterans Affairs and some or all of these Canada-wide distress centres would be a good idea, in the interest of saving money and building on an existing, proven, and effective source of help.
This is certainly an area that we at the Distress Centre of Ottawa are open to investigating. In fact, our board has already begun to explore the avenue of how we can better support the military personnel and vets in our existing work.
In closing, I would like to offer my respect and honour for the sacrifices made by these men and women. They might need help, but that doesn't mean they are helpless. They might be hurt, but that doesn't mean they are broken.