A tragedy turns the spotlight to mental health
This past week, Canadians have been processing the devastating story of the deaths of military veteran Lionel Desmond, his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter, Aliyah, and his mother, Brenda. In what the media is calling an apparent murder-suicide, it is believed that Lionel took the lives of his family members before taking his own.
Lionel, who had recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, had been living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that had been with him since finishing his first tour in Afghanistan in 2007. “He would flip between being a loving husband and father and a shell-shocked veteran. He had nightmares, flashbacks and struggled to find a treatment that would help him,” said Lionel’s sister in law, Shonda Borden.1
While Lionel was receiving mental health treatment and support, that support ended upon his release from the military in 2015. Upon returning home to Nova Scotia, Lionel was unable to get the help with PTSD that he needed. According to Lionel’s family, he had been actively seeking treatment from St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., but had been turned away.2
Knowing that Lionel was struggling to get the support he needed brings up a difficult question: should he have had better support, could this tragedy have been prevented?
The Canadian Mental Health Association describes PTSD as a mental illness “that causes intrusive symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. Many people have vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts of the event that seem to come from nowhere… PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions.”3 And the impact on our military and Veterans is widespread: based on statistics from Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defence, “nearly one in 10 of the Canadian military personnel who took part in the mission in Afghanistan are now collecting disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.”4
The incidence mental illness among Veterans is something that the Canadian Institute for Military & Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR), housed here at Queen’s, focuses on in its work. Made up of 42 collaborating universities, the institute acts as a focal point for research on the health and healthcare needs of the Canadian military, Veterans and their families. CIMVHR also acts as a conduit between the academic community, government organizations and industry. In building and fostering a body of research, CIMVHR is poised to disseminate the most current evidence, which can be used to educate clinicians and policy makers and to form recommendations that will improve the support and care that our military, Veterans and their families receive.
Out of a heart-breaking situation, the fact that the national spotlight has again been turned to mental health, the health of our Veterans and the ongoing struggles that they face when they transition to civilian life might be seen as one of the few positive outcomes. I hope that Lionel’s story serves as motivation for a focus on the need for augmented resources for mental health issues in general, and for those affecting our military, Veterans and their families in specific.
Please share your thoughts by commenting on the blog…or better yet, drop by the Macklem House, my door is always open.
Thank you to Jen Valberg for her assistance in preparing this blog.