A tragic wake-up call

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional columnist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc — Twit­ter: @Wanger­sky

It should be a sim­ple fact: if our coun­try sends peo­ple to fight wars, we have to be pre­pared to help the in­jured and the dam­aged af­ter­wards. If we send first re­spon­ders into dan­ger, we should help with their treat­ment as well.

Right now, four deaths in Up­per Big Tra­cadie, N.S., are front and cen­tre in the pub­lic eye. It’s pretty clear that Lionel Des­mond, a for­mer Cana­dian sol­dier suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der fol­low­ing service in Afghanistan, killed three mem­bers of his fam­ily be­fore com­mit­ting sui­cide. The vic­tims? His 10-year-old daugh­ter, Aaliyah, his wife, Shanna Des­mond, and his mother, Brenda Des­mond.

Lionel Des­mond, ac­quain­tances say, had been seek­ing help for years.

“He’s been cry­ing out for help from the mental health sys­tem,” one fam­ily mem­ber told the CBC, adding Des­mond was turned away from hospi­tal the week be­fore be­cause of a bed short­age. He did re­ceive help for his con­di­tion from Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

No one will ever be able to say that the deaths were di­rectly the re­sult of Des­mond’s PTSD. But what’s clear is that try­ing to find help for a com­pli­cated mental is­sue is in both frus­trat­ing and de­struc­tive — things are bad enough al­ready, and be­ing turned away from help only makes it worse.

Any PTSD suf­ferer can tell you it is an in­sid­i­ous thing: it moves your life around in ways that are hard to even imag­ine. Some­times you can’t sleep; other times, you are afraid to sleep, afraid of night­mares or day­time fugues so real that you be­lieve they are hap­pen­ing to you right then. You might not want any­one stand­ing be­hind you — ever. At pub­lic events, you seek out walls. You might avoid pub­lic events en­tirely.

There’s the ex­haust­ing ef­fort of be­ing caught in the throes of hy­per-vig­i­lance. You may live for weeks with an in­abil­ity to shake im­pend­ing and over­whelm­ing dread — you may waste count­less hours pre-plan­ning for dis­as­ter and cal­cu­lat­ing how to pro­tect the peo­ple you love. And some­times, para­dox­i­cally, there’s the over­whelm­ing and in­ex­pli­ca­ble de­sire to go back to the very sit­u­a­tions that caused the whole mess, just to feel the ex­treme fear-based ex­cite­ment all over again.

PTSD can ex­ist at dif­fer­ent and chang­ing lev­els of in­ten­sity at dif­fer­ent times; you can be­lieve you are free of it, only to have the symp­toms come crash­ing back when you don’t ex­pect it. There is a point when it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to even fig­ure out what’s real.

It’s an un­worldly, com­pli­cated mess, one not eas­ily un­der­stood or dealt with.

What is eas­ily un­der­stood is that there are treat­ments, and that Cana­dian vet­er­ans should have rapid and en­hanced ac­cess to those treat­ments.

It should be a given that ex-sol­diers need the best of care, both phys­i­cally and men­tally.

They’re not get­ting it — and nor is any­one else, frankly.

We’re at a cu­ri­ous cross­ing point for mental health: on the one hand, we’re ask­ing peo­ple to come out of the shad­ows, to be open and sup­port­ive about mental health is­sues. On the other hand, those who come for­ward meet huge wait times or mas­sively ex­pen­sive pri­vate treat­ment op­tions.

Em­ployee as­sis­tance pro­grams — if they ex­ist in your work­place — of­fer woe­fully short treat­ment op­tions. Pub­lic sys­tems have ex­ten­sive wait lists, while pri­vate op­tions are ru­inously ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially if your con­di­tion is se­ri­ous enough that you can’t work.

We’re told we shouldn’t worry about stigma, but if you come for­ward and find only closed doors, is it a step for­wards or a step back­wards?

You can’t be told that you should come out of the shad­ows, and that peo­ple will support and help you, when it is abun­dantly clear that our med­i­cal sys­tem isn’t able to do ei­ther.

Change has to come, not just in how we view mental health, but in the re­sources we ap­ply to deal­ing with it.

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