Men­tal ill­ness a ‘ca­su­alty of war’

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - NATIONAL NEWS - LEE BERTHI­AUME

OT­TAWA — Lt.-Col. Samuel Sharpe is poised to fi­nally re­turn to the foyer out­side the House of Com­mons, more than a cen­tury af­ter the for­mer mem­ber of Par­lia­ment and First World War vet­eran re­turned trau­ma­tized from the killing fields of Europe and took his own life.

A bronze plaque bear­ing Sharpe’s like­ness is to be un­veiled dur­ing a cer­e­mony on Par­lia­ment Hill Wed­nes­day, the lat­est sign of the coun­try’s chang­ing at­ti­tude to­wards the psy­cho­log­i­cal harm that Cana­dian sol­diers have suf­fered from war for gen­er­a­tions.

The Royal Cana­dian Le­gion last week took the un­prece­dented step of nam­ing the mother of the first sol­dier to die by sui­cide af­ter serv­ing in Afghanistan, Pte. Thomas Welch, as this year’s Sil­ver Cross Mother.

“This is a sem­i­nal year for rec­og­niz­ing men­tal ill­nesses as a ca­su­alty of war,” Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sea­mus O’Re­gan said in an in­ter­view. “And so many Canadi- ans, frankly, are al­ready there. They want this. So I’m happy we’re kind of catch­ing up.”

Sharpe was a sit­ting mem­ber of Par­lia­ment when he helped raise the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force’s 116th bat­tal­ion and then headed over­seas to com­mand the unit dur­ing the First World War.

Not only was Sharpe in­volved in some of the big­gest and blood­i­est Cana­dian bat­tles of the First World War, he was re-elected in ab­sen­tia only a few weeks af­ter the end of the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, in which he re­ceived an award for gal­lantry.

But, Sharpe would never re­take his seat. The strain and trauma of Pass­chen­daele, where more than 16,000 Cana­di­ans were killed or wounded in months of fight­ing in 1917, in­clud­ing one of his clos­est friends, would be too much.

Sharpe was hos­pi­tal­ized for “ner­vous shock” a few months later and re­turned to Canada. On May 25, 1918, he jumped from a win­dow at the Royal Vic­to­ria Hos­pi­tal in Mon­treal.

There is al­ready a sculp­ture in Cen­tre Block’s foyer ded­i­cated to the only serv­ing MP to have died in com­bat; Lt.-Col. Ge­orge Baker was killed dur­ing the Bat­tle of Mount Sor­rel in Bel­gium in June 1916 and his statue was erected in 1924.

But there has been a grow­ing sense in re­cent years, which co­in­cided with more aware­ness about the re­al­ity that many vet­er­ans are suf­fer­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal in­juries, that it was time to hon­our Sharpe — and send a mes­sage of sup­port to those who needed to hear it.

One of the most vo­cal ad­vo­cates for rec­og­niz­ing Sharpe’s legacy has been Con­ser­va­tive MP Erin O’Toole, who was vet­er­ans af­fairs min­is­ter dur­ing the fi­nal years of the Harper govern­ment.

O’Toole, who rep­re­sents part of Sharpe’s old On­tario rid­ing, spon­sored a mo­tion in May — on the eve of the 100th an­niver­sary of the for­mer MP’s death — call­ing for the plaque to be in­stalled in the foyer. The mo­tion passed the House of Com­mons with unan­i­mous con­sent.

“The whole point was be­fore the 100th an­niver­sary of the Great War, we were go­ing to make right an omis­sion from al­most a cen­tury ago where Ge­orge Baker was rec­og­nized and Sam Sharpe was to­tally for­got­ten,” O’Toole said on Tuesday.

“It was al­ways about show­ing that as a so­ci­ety, we’re ma­ture enough to rec­og­nize that at­ti­tudes 100 years ago were quite abysmal when it came to men­tal health, sui­cide, ner­vous shock or shell shock, and that we’ve learned and we can talk about it.”

A land­mark study by Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada last year found that the risk of sui­cide among male vet­er­ans was 36 per cent higher than among men who had never served in the Cana­dian mil­i­tary.

Even more wor­ry­ing was that men un­der the age of 25 were 242 per cent more likely to kill them­selves than non-vet­er­ans of the same age, while the risk among fe­male vet­er­ans of all ages was 81 per cent greater than for women who hadn’t served.

Yet, Sharpe’s re­turn will be short lived. The plaque, which has been in stor­age on Par­lia­ment Hill for the past cou­ple of years amid a po­lit­i­cal de­bate over what to do with it, will be moved to the Royal Ot­tawa Men­tal Health Cen­tre at the end of the year.

That’s be­cause Cen­tre Block is sched­uled to close for ren­o­va­tions around Christ­mas and will stay closed for the next decade.

“When the ren­o­va­tions are fin­ished, he will go back to his right­ful place to re­mind mem­bers of Par­lia­ment as they walk through,” O’Re­gan said, but O’Toole wor­ried that Sharpe will be for­got­ten again un­less the plaque is of­fi­cially in­stalled in the foyer first.

The plaque is to be dis­played out­side the House of Com­mons, but of­fi­cials say it will not be for­mally af­fixed to the wall or dis­played in a per­ma­nent way be­cause of the com­ing ren­o­va­tions — which O’Toole in­sists is not what his mo­tion de­manded.

O’Toole, who ac­cused the govern­ment of “drag­ging their feet” on rec­og­niz­ing Sharpe over the past few years, asked Com­mons Speaker Ge­off Re­gan on Tuesday to look into the mat­ter, which Re­gan said he would do.

In the mean­time, O’Toole hoped that Sharpe’s story will re­duce the stigma of men­tal ill­ness and show that any­one — from a pri­vate to a se­nior of­fi­cer and MP — can be af­fected by war.

“Sam Sharpe was one of the most ac­com­plished, iconic peo­ple in south­ern On­tario in that era,” O’Toole said, “and he was struck by op­er­a­tional-stress in­juries, which can be some­thing that is a byprod­uct of war and ser­vice.”

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