By Matthew Barrett and Allan English*
There have been more deaths by suicides in the Canadian Armed Forces since 2002 than mission deaths in Afghanistan. In the twelve years that Canada was engaged in the War in Afghanistan, 158 Armed Forces members were killed. During the same period, 178 members died by suicide, of which some might have been attributed to Operational Stress Injuries (OSIs).2 In addition to being personal and family tragedies, suicides constitute a significant loss of personnel to the CAF, and a loss to Canadian society as well.
Recent political and media attention surrounding the issue of suicide in Canadian military and veteran populations is not a new concern. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Canadian government, veterans’ groups, and the public-at-large confronted the problem of soldier suicide in the context of contentious debates over pensions and rehabilitation for returned men. Just over a decade after the end of the war, Colonel G. S. Rennie, the former commander of No. 2 General Hospital, observed: “These men become despondent and we read in the newspapers every week or even sometimes more frequently that one of these men, despondent, out of work, ill and unable to get a pension, has committed suicide.”3 Although the number and details of suicides in Canadian military and veteran populations is not well documented, a number of cases have come to public attention, especially those during or immediately after a major conflict in which Canada has been involved.
This article uses two case studies as a preliminary examination into Canadian attitudes toward suicide in the military: Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Simpson Sharpe (1873–1918), and Major Michelle Mendes (1978–2009). After introducing the cases, we examine how public attitudes towards suicide and mental stress injuries in the Canadian military changed during the course of each conflict—the First World War, and Afghanistan. We then assess how de-stigmatization efforts might be improved by using historical evidence, and how this knowledge could be leveraged to help facilitate a more productive and open dialogue about mental health and suicide in the military.
Four key perceptions have influenced public attitudes towards military suicide: (1) Perceptions of the military itself—what is the role of the military within society? (2) Perceptions of the conflict—how is the mission interpreted by the Canadian public? (3) Perceptions of mental illness—what are the prevailing cultural beliefs concerning mental illness? (4) Perceptions of place of death—the significance of where a soldier dies reflects the values the public associates with the military, the conflict, and mental illness. Examining this issue from an historical perspective indicates which societal attitudes towards suicide in the military have been more durable, and which have been more susceptible to change. Identifying these attitudes will assist in shaping how stakeholders pursue de-stigmatization and suicide prevention strategies.
First World War: Lieutenant Colonel Sam Sharpe
Lieutenant Colonel Sam Sharpe was a sitting Member of Parliament for Ontario North who commanded the 116th Battalion for eleven months on the Western Front. In a letter to the widow of one of his officers in October 1917, Sharpe admitted that if he began to contemplate the misery and suffering he had witnessed, “I would soon become absolutely incapable of ‘Carrying on.’”4 Three months later, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to a hospital in England with a diagnosis of general debility. On 25 May 1918, shortly after returning to Canada on convalescence leave, Sharpe jumped to his death from a window in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.5
During the early phase of the First World War, many military leaders and doctors believed that suicidal soldiers were predisposed to suffer from depression and delusions due to hereditary weakness and innate cowardice. Viewing self-harm as a symptom of lack of discipline, armies tended to treat soldiers who attempted to kill themselves as deserters.6 Late-war reassessment of mental stress injuries as legitimate war casualties resulted in a growing sense that sufferers overwhelmed by suicidal depression or traumatic stress were not necessarily responsible for their conduct.7 Greater awareness of the war’s psychological effects resulted in sympathetic reports of soldier suicide in the press.8 At the time of Sharpe’s death, changing perceptions of shell shock and the patriotic mood of the country caused many to emphasize his courage and sacrifice as opposed to his tragic end. The Toronto Globe for example treated Sharpe’s death the same as a combat fatality, noting significantly, “He gave up his life as truly ‘on the field of honor’ as if he had fallen in action.”9
During the First World War, and since, commentators have used the expression ‘field of honour’ to memorialize and respect dead soldiers. Death on the ‘field of honour’ associated the fallen with righteousness and higher significance, thereby legitimizing their sacrifice and memory.10 The experience of the First World War illustrated a shift in how the “field of honour” could be applied to military dead. In the course of the conflict, the phrase assumed an egalitarian meaning that could encompass all individuals who had died in the course of the conflict. Symbolically grouping all casualties as “dead on the field of honour” could include soldiers killed in direct enemy action, killed by accident, died from disease as well as died by suicide. Rather than stigmatize a suicidal soldier such as Sharpe, many Canadians could accept that the “death was the result of service in France.”11
Recently, Sharpe has received greater recognition from the Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Erin O’Toole, as “a teaching device” in the campaign to bring awareness to the issue of mental health in the military.12 O’Toole, who represents the same region of Ontario as Sharpe did as an MP, hosts the annual Sam Sharpe Breakfast with former Senator and retired CAF Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, “ … in part to show that we are making progress,” but the Minister also notes, “We still have a long way to go …”13
War in Afghanistan: Major Michelle Mendes
A century after the First World War, the challenge of mental strain and wartime stress among service members continues to confront stakeholders in the government, the military, the medical profession, veterans’ groups and the Canadian population in general. On 23 April 2009, Major Michelle Mendes was found dead in her room at the Kandahar airfield. She had been serving a second tour of duty in Afghanistan as an operations officer with the Kandahar Intelligence Fusion Centre. Initial media reports inferred suicide and military investigators later determined she had died by self-inflicted gunshot.14
Just as the early phase of the First World War, during the “Decade of Darkness” of the 1990s, a state of “blissful ignorance” existed about some of the precursors of suicide as Canadian policymakers and military leaders lacked sufficient data on the nature of OSIs. In the public’s mind, peacekeeping missions of the day were not perceived as combat operations. Consequently, few resources were allocated to mental injuries and the problem of OSIs was largely interpreted as a disciplinary issue.15 The recent experience of Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan has placed greater focus on issues of mental health in the military. This emphasis on mental health care reflects the public’s focus on the Canadian soldier as a heroic national symbol.16
On 26 April 2009, Mendes was repatriated to Canada along the Highway of Heroes as the 118th Canadian fatality in Afghanistan. In media interviews, one observer who watched the procession emphasized, “It’s still a soldier … She (was) still doing her job in Afghanistan for all of us.” Another explained, “We try and treat them with the same respect, if it’s combat or not combat.”17 In an official statement, Defence Minister Peter MacKay connected the death to “our important mission to bring peace and stability to the people of Afghanistan.”18 In public commemorations and tributes to Mendes, civilians and government officials drew no clear distinction between a death by suicide and a serviceperson killed in action.
Comparison of 1918 and 2009
The cases of Sharpe and Mendes represent two snapshots in time to illustrate changing perceptions of OSIs and military suicide. Whereas pre-war attitudes in 1914 and in the 1990s often portrayed suicidal actions and mental stress as a discipline issue, in both instances, the experience of each war resulted in greater public attention and concern for mental health in the military. By 1918, after four years of war, there was willingness in the press to acknowledge Sharpe as a wartime casualty and attribute the cause of his mental instability to his battlefield experience. By 2009, after four years of Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan, media reports of Mendes’ death treated her as casualty of the mission. Positive press coverage indicated a desire to recover meaning in the tragic deaths by emphasizing higher ideals of duty, honour, and sacrifice, rather than stigmatize the individual and the actual cause of death. For the Canadian public in each era, it seemed self-evident that Sharpe and Mendes had died on the field of honour, even though they were not technically in the combat zone at the time of death.
De-stigmatization, Contagion, and Commemoration
Despite this inclination to treat soldiers who die by suicide in a time of war as causalities, the nature of the deaths continues to produce certain taboos and silences. At the close of the investigation into Mendes’ death in August 2010, the military police were, for instance, not proactive in making their conclusions public. Media outlets observed that the reluctance to disclose the cause of death seemed at odds with the goal of reducing the stigma of mental illness.19 The situation is further complicated by the fact that service members who died by suicide in Afghanistan are counted as mission causalities, whereas returned soldiers and veterans who kill themselves in Canada are not.
The differing viewpoints articulated by former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson, and former Senator Roméo Dallaire represent two of the conflicting approaches in confronting how military suicides are understood by the public and reported in the media. These perspectives represent what we term “contagion” versus “commemoration.” In February 2014, General Lawson stated, “…actually stigmatizing the act of suicide is probably a very good thing in our society.” He added, by embracing those who might have suffered mental stress injuries, “… we may have brought a slight honour to the act of suicide.”20 In December 2012, Dallaire stated, “It is already catastrophic enough that we are not recognizing these individuals on our monuments as true casualties …We are not even doing that, and so the stigma is still there.”21 General Lawson’s comment reflects a concern that increased public attention or sympathetic media coverage may result in a suicide contagion effect, thereby exacerbating or exaggerating the problem of suicide in the Canadian military.22 By contrast, Dallaire’s statement reflects a concern that lack of public attention and muted coverage may result in more instances of suicide by service personnel due to negative stigmatization.
The tension between anxiety over a contagion effect and a desire for commemoration in turn influences how suicide cases are presented to the public. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) has specified guidelines for the media to follow when reporting suicides. Citing evidence-based literature that suggests forms of reportage might trigger additional suicides in certain at-risk populations, the SPRC has advised media outlets not to romanticize and glamorize a person who died by suicide, nor to include detailed descriptions of method and location of death.23
By presenting soldiers like Sharpe as heroic casualties of war, Canadian press reporting during the First World War era would have certainly violated current procedures and restrictions about romanticizing death by suicide. Consider the case of one of Sharpe’s officers in the 116th Battalion, Lieutenant C. V. V. Coombs, who suffered shell shock and shot himself in December 1919. The Toronto Globe not only explained, “Everybody feels that it is as if he had died at the hands of the enemy,”24 a news correspondent paid tribute to the soldier “ … who feared not to end the life which battle wounds had made unbearable.”25 In the cases of Sharpe and Coombs, contemporary newspaper coverage showed greater interest with commemorating the dead and highlighting their bravery and dedication than an anxiety that such tributes might “ … bring a slight honour to the act of suicide.”26
As indicated by General Lawson’s statement, modern government and media institutions are more sensitive to the possible negative effect of detailed or subjective suicide coverage. However, as Senator Dallaire observed, when applied to the issue of suicide in the military, restrictive guidelines might serve to reinforce stigmatization. This point reflects Senator Dallaire’s concern about the perceived lack of recognition for service members who died by suicide outside of Afghanistan, even if the cause of their death might have been an OSI incurred during their tour in Afghanistan.27 The ways in which the public interprets the mission and perceives the soldiers involved will affect how resulting mental injuries are regarded and treated.28 If military personnel who died by suicide outside of the combat theatre are not considered part of the overall mission, their deaths may be perceived as less worthy of recognition than combat fatalities. Consequently, the mental difficulties and OSIs that could possibly have contributed to some of the deaths may not be identified as a vital concern because the public perceives the deaths to have occurred at home, and not in the war.
The contagion perspective necessarily entails an aspect of stigmatization that prevents this kind of inclusion on the field of honour, and it maintains a clear distinction with those killed in action overseas. Had Sharpe died by suicide in Canada today, outside of the combat theatre, he would not be included in the total number of war casualties. In the same way, had Mendes’ death occurred in Canada, she would not have been included in mission casualties, either. This point highlights the central question of how Canadian society has defined the place of the field of honour in relation to different types of casualties, both psychological and physical.
The field of honour has often literally described the actual combat zone—the Western Front or Afghanistan—but it has also been represented as a symbolic metaphor. While every death of a Canadian Forces member to occur in Afghanistan is counted as a mission casualty, in certain instances, a mission fatality could also take place at home. Master Corporal Charles-Philippe Michaud, the son of the 2014 Silver Cross Mother, Gisèle Michaud, had been wounded by an IED in Afghanistan in June 2009. He was transported to a city of Québec hospital where he died only a few days later as the 122nd mission casualty.29 In this case, the field of honour could be expansive to include Canada; just as for Sharpe in 1918, the field of honour had been a Montréal hospital. Consequently, the field of honour has also been a flexible symbol for how Canadian society has identified certain causalities as honourable and worthy of commemoration.
Narrow or expansive definitions of the field of honour influence how stakeholders will prioritize certain types of injuries—physical and psychological—as well as what the Canadian public believe constitutes an honourable casualty. The ways in which Canadians think about the field of honour is directly related to de-stigmatization because, historically, public attitudes toward soldier suicide have tended to be more sympathetic when the individuals were considered to be engaged in the overall mission, as in the case of both Sharpe and Mendes. This commemoration viewpoint suggests that de-stigmatization efforts might benefit from removing supposed distinctions between a service member who died by suicide, died of wounds, or was killed in action. At the same time, stakeholders in the government, military, and medical profession need to consider Lawson’s concern about bringing “a slight honour” to the act of suicide as possibly leading to a contagion effect.30 It is possible that a commemoration approach might risk a contagion effect, but it is nevertheless vital to recognize that the contagion viewpoint restricts commemoration.
By conducting an historical analysis of two selected case studies nearly one hundred years apart, this research has identified some attitudes towards suicide in Canadian culture that have historically hindered or aided de-stigmatization. However, some attitudes appear to be more durable than others. A significant durable attitude in the Canadian military is the stigmatization of the act of suicide, but not necessarily the person. Whereas, a belief subject to change is that, in certain circumstances, soldiers who have died by suicide can be considered wartime casualties. Based upon the two case studies of Sharpe and Mendes, it is hypothesized that efforts to de-stigmatize durable attitudes towards suicide in Canada’s military and veteran population will require more time, effort, and resources than less durable attitudes. Historically, even if suicide as an act has been stigmatized as social taboo, military fatalities of suicide have not always been burdened with the same stigma. This historical evidence may help inform the priorities and strategies that stakeholders pursue in reducing incidents of suicide.
This article has argued that an inclination to de-stigmatize suicide and commemorate service members who have killed themselves as war causalities often rests in opposition to a fear that such normalization could trigger suicide contagion in some at-risk populations. In confronting how the issue of soldier suicide is discussed and interpreted by the public, government officials, military leaders, media commentators, and medical professionals need to identify which strategies will be prioritized. An approach that emphasizes commemoration too strongly risks obscuring the actual cause of death and the underlying mental health issues. An approach that focuses upon contagion might similarly reinforce silences that stigmatize the individual. Only by balancing an awareness of contagion triggers with an expectation for appropriate commemoration can public sympathy for all military casualties be leveraged to facilitate a more open and productive dialogue about mental health and suicide prevention in the Canadian military.
About the authors:
*Matthew Barrett is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Queen’s University in Kingston. His research focuses upon public perceptions of shell shock during the First World War, and the history of suicide in the Canadian military.
Allan English, CD, PhD, served for twenty-five years in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Forces. He teaches Canadian military history in the History Department at Queen’s University. Allan has served on committees that advised Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the RCMP on operational stress injuries. He is a member of the College of Peer Reviewers of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.
- This article is based upon a presentation made at the Military and Veteran Health Research Forum, Toronto, 24-26 November 2014.
- Statistics current as of 31 March 2014. “Military Suicides Outnumbered Deaths in Afghanistan, New Stats Show.” Kingston Whig Standard (16 Sept 2014), at http://www.thewhig.com/2014/09/16/military-suicides-outnumbered-deaths-in-afghanistan-new-stats-show
- Canada. House. Debates, 16th Parliament, 4th Session, Vol. 1 (27 February 1930), p. 122.
- Sam Sharpe to Muriel Hutchison. 21 October 1917 (courtesy of the Ontario Regiment Museum: Oshawa, Ontario).
- “Col. Sharpe Dies at Montreal,” in Toronto Globe (27 May 1918), p. 7.
- Patricia Prestwich, “Suicide and French Soldiers of the First World War: Differing Perspectives, 1914-1939,” in John Weaver and David Wright, eds. Histories of Suicide: International Perspectives on Self-Destruction in the Modern World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. 137.
- Peter Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2004), pp. 129-133.
- Jonathan Scotland, “Soldier Suicide after the Great War: A First Look,” in Active History (24 Mar 2014), at http://activehistory.ca/2014/03/soldier-suicide-after-the-great-war-a-first-look/
- “The Last Measure of Devotion,” Toronto Globe (27 May 1918), p. 6.
- For more on the postwar patriotic mythology, Jonathan Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997), pp. 100-101.
- F. C. Mears, “Fallen Soldier M.P. Honored in Bronze,” in Toronto Globe (27 December 1923), p. 1.
- Quoted in Lee Berthiaume, “O’Toole hopes to change story on government’s treatment of veterans,” in Ottawa Citizen (25 February 2015), at http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/otoole-hopes-to-change-story-on- governments-treatment-of-veterans
- Canada. House. Debates. 41st Parliament, 2nd Session (11 May 2015).
- Christie Blatchford, “A Soldier’s Story: Did we push her too much?” in Globe & Mail (20 June 2009), at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ did-we-push-her-too-much/article4277429/?page=all .
- Sydney Dale-McGrath and Allan English, “Overcoming Systematic Obstacles to Veteran Transition to Civilian Life,” in Alice Aiken and Stephanie Belanger(eds.), Beyond the Line: Military and Veteran Health Research (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), p. 257.
- Allan English. “From Combat Stress to Operational Stress: The CF’s Mental Health Lessons from the Decade of Darkness,” in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4 (2012), p. 9, at http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol12/no4/doc/English-pages917.pdf
- Quoted in Steve Petrick, “Body of Canadian soldier found dead on Kandahar base returns home,” in Winnipeg Free Press (26 April 2009), at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/breakingnews/Body-of-Canadian-soldier-found-dead-on-Kandahar-base-returns-home.html
- Peter MacKay, “Statement by the Minister of National Defence on the death of Major Michelle Mendes,” (24 April 2009), at http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/news/article.page?doc=statement-by-the-minister-of-national-defence-on-the-death-of-major-michelle-mendes/hnps1upn
- Murray Brewster, “Forces closes book on officer’s suicide, but troubling questions persist,” in The Canadian Press (10 August 2010).
- Quoted in Lee Berthlaume. “Outcry over Military Suicides…,” in National Post, (14 February 2014), at http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/02/14/public-outcry-over-military-suicides-may-actually-have-brought-a-slight-honour-to-the-act-canadas-defence-chief-says/
- Canada. Senate. Debates, 41st Parliament, 1st Session. Vol. 148, No. 131 (13 December 2012), at http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/Sen/Chamber/411/Debates/131db_2012-12-13-e.htm#48
- For more on “media contagion effect,” see Amanda Edwards-Stewart, Julie T. Kinn, Jennifer D. June, and Nicole R. Fullerton, “Military and Civilian Media Coverage of Suicide,” Archives of Suicide Research, Vol. 15, No. 4 (2011), pp. 304-312.
- Ibid, p. 305.
- Harold Steevens, “As If He Had Died at Hands of the Enemy,” in Toronto Globe (29 December 1919), p. 2.
- Harold Steevens, “Capt. Coombs Rests in Soldier Grave,” in Toronto Globe (3 January 1920), p. 2.
- Quoted in Berthlaume, “Outcry Over Military Suicides…”
- Canada. Senate. Debates, 41st Parliament, 1st Session, Vol. 148, No. 131 (13 December 2012).
- Dale-McGrath and English, pp. 256-257.
- “Legion announces memorial (Silver) Cross Mother for 2014-15,” in Legion (31 October 2014), at http://www.legion.ca/article/legion-announces-memorial-silver-cross-mother-for-2014-15/
- Quoted in Berthlaume, “Outcry Over Military Suicides…”