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Second reading of Bill C-211, An Act respecting a federal framework on post-traumatic stress disorder

Second reading of Bill C-211, An Act respecting a federal framework on post-traumatic stress disorder

Second reading of Bill C-211, An Act respecting a federal framework on post-traumatic stress disorder

Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals): 

Honourable senators, I would like to join in the debate with my colleagues in voicing support for Bill C-211, which calls for the development of a comprehensive framework to address post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to thank Senator Housakos for acting as the sponsor for this much-needed bill and Senator Bernard for her thoughtful remarks earlier in relation to this particular matter.

I do not intend to speak at length today, but I did want to bring to your attention and highlight the work that has already been done in this area by the Senate and, in particular, the Standing Senate Committee Veterans Affairs.

When I served as chair of this subcommittee in 2014, we began a comprehensive study on the medical, social and operational impacts of mental health issues affecting serving and retired members of the Canadian Armed Forces. This included operational stress injuries, sometimes referred to as OSIs, like post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. The intent of our study was to examine the existing programs and services, both public and private, that were available to serving members and veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police who were suffering from operational stress injuries. We also hoped to learn more about the new technologies and new treatments to help those suffering to recover from their mental health conditions.

We began by hearing from the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, departmental officials, mental health experts and care providers. We learned a great deal about the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the programs and services in place at that time. We heard that post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the most well-known operational stress injuries associated with military service. Dr. Greg Passey of the British Columbia Operational Stress Injury Clinic testified that research shows between 5 and 15 per cent — and some claim even more — of military personnel returning from military operations are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. We heard about the components of treatment — clinical treatment like behavioural therapy and possibly medication, and psychosocial support, such as from family and colleagues.

We also learned a great deal about research into operational stress injuries, the broader category. The Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, CIMVHR, which was founded a little over seven years ago at Queen’s University in conjunction with the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, is a leader in research. I can tell you, honourable colleagues, that 43 different universities across Canada and elsewhere are part of this research collaboration. In addition to partners at each of those universities, there are literally hundreds of researchers involved in this particular area. We should be very proud of this effort that CIMVHR has begun. It has grown very quickly.

Both the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada work extensively with the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.

Finally, we received extensive information from senior representatives of the Canadian Armed Forces, National Defence, the RCMP as well as Veterans Affairs Canada on various programs and services their organizations provided to serving members and veterans suffering from operational stress injuries. We heard about the successes but also the very real challenges of interdepartmental cooperation. While the subcommittee found that great strides are being made, there is still significant work to do.

In June 2015, after 13 hearings, we tabled an interim report outlining the subcommittee’s findings. I’d commend that to your attention. It’s a very good background document.

Now, almost three years later, a recent article in the National Post reminds us that the problem is not getting any better. According to National Defence, the number of Canadian Armed Forces members who have applied for long-term disability benefits has increased by 60 per cent over the past five years.

As honourable senators will know, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder often manifest many years after the trauma. That’s what we’re starting to see, and what we have been seeing, with respect to veterans of the Afghanistan war, a conflict for which some are just coming to grips with some of the symptoms these men and women didn’t know they had.

There’s another part to this that is extremely distressing. Honourable senators will recall the figure that we went through day after day when a new death took place when we were in Afghanistan. The total was 158 soldiers who died in operations during the years we were in Afghanistan. But, honourable senators, since leaving Afghanistan and returning home, almost half that number again have died from suicide — over 71 at last count. Seventy-one veterans of Afghanistan have died as a result of not being able to handle the internal stress of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s a huge number. It’s almost half. The other figure we saw a lot, but we don’t see this one enough to realize that we have a tremendous challenge here.

Honourable senators, the department attributes some of the increase in long-term disability applications to increased awareness and recognition, and that might be true. As we learn better ways to diagnose, the numbers will go up because we’re diagnosing something that wasn’t diagnosed previously.

A recent article reads:

Experts have long warned that it will take years to reach a full understanding of the psychological cost of the war in Afghanistan, with many more veterans expected to come forward years after having served tours [there].

I would also like to reiterate that post-traumatic stress disorder is certainly not limited to the military and military service. Dr. Passey, whom I referenced earlier, pointed out that the rate of PTSD and suicide is actually higher among first responders, ambulance attendants, firefighters and police than the military and the veterans from Afghanistan. He also told us that the RCMP rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are higher than those of the Canadian military. So first responder and RCMP officer rates are higher than the military’s, and the military is at a rate that’s not acceptable.

Ms. Natalie Harris, a paramedic who appeared before the Standing Committee on Health in the other place, talked extensively about her own experience with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said:

We thought we would be strong enough to avoid being uncomfortable, but no one is. Strength isn’t measured by the number of deaths we pronounce. It’s measured by the number of deaths we recognize we need to talk about in order to sleep at night. First responders are some amazing people, but signing up to be one didn’t mean we signed our hearts away.

That is very true. It is my hope that a post-traumatic stress disorder framework will help Canadians like Ms. Harris and all those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s the purpose of this bill.

Our good friend, former senator and Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, reminded me recently that this spring marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Sharpe, MP.

As you may be aware, Colonel Sharpe was a member of Parliament who had served as a soldier both at Vimy Ridge and at Passchendaele. But tragically, he also stands as the first Canadian politician to return from having served overseas only to take his own life as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. I think it’s only fitting that we are discussing this legislation here at this time, and I strongly support Bill C-211 and hope that you will do likewise.