Mental Health in the Canadian Forces: Addiction

Video / October 5, 2016


Female voice: I never got in any trouble at work; no one at work ever knew I had a problem with anything.

Male voice: I’m a recovering addict, recovering alcoholic.

Male voice: I had never gambled much, but I won. And I realized when I was there that I wasn’t stressed out, so I ended up starting at that point gambling.

Male voice: I’m an addict in recovery, and I’m mentally ill and in recovery from that.

Female voice: In fact, it’s difficult for a person living with addiction to realize that they themselves have a problem.

Female voice: There’s many warning flags. While at work supervisors would see members coming in late, maybe coming in…alcohol on their breath; a lot of absenteeism, a lot of trips to the CDU’s perhaps on a Monday morning. We see deterioration of work; we see secrecy: where members don’t want to let others know how much they’re drinking; they do that in secret. We see relationship problems; families are impacted by it; co-workers are impacted by it.

Female voice: Generally, the people around them will realize well before the person living with an addiction that there’s a problem. So at first, a person who has a problem with addiction will realize it by the different comments they receive from one person or another. The problem we encounter — in fact what people who experience it often encounter — is that people don’t speak up enough. People are not going to intervene enough.

Male voice: Alcohol was part of the regular social interaction. The anticipation you’re going to be going into port and into the socialization involving alcohol and…to fit in also.

Male voice: I mean the navy that I grew up in, alcohol surrounded everything that we do.

Female voice: So there was times that I went to work and I smelled of alcohol and they were like, “Were you drinking before you came to work?” and I was like. “What are you crazy, of course I wasn’t.”

Male voice: I know that when I had to go through it, it was like a matter of, I was going to lose my job. And it was like, I had to do something.

Female voice: When we talk about addiction, it does not only rest on the shoulders of the person living with the problem. Like health — whether good or poor health — addiction depends on a combination of factors. These factors go well beyond the person herself.

Male voice: In terms of prevention, it’s more than just education, it really has to go towards a cultural shift.

Female voice: I still think today in 2016 people don’t see addictions as a mental health problem. I think a lot of people still see addiction as somebody can’t hold his liquor, or he shouldn’t be like that; he drinks too much, can’t hold his liquor.

Male voice: And sometimes within the military that hardnosed, ‘You do what I say’ or ‘Suck it up!’ is not the right answer.

Male voice: When I reached out for help, the captain of my ship at the time was very empathetic, very supportive and on my side. And the first things that he said to me were, “What can we do to help you get better?” And that was vital. When someone reaches out for help, the critical role of the leader is to offer that empathetic, supportive help.

Male voice: Ultimately no amount of policy, no amount of education is going to break cultural norms. So that’s where the real core to prevention begins, as sort of changing the cultural norms, if you will.

Female voice: Like people think…they look as an alcoholic, as I think they see some decrepit person under a bridge living in a box. They don’t realize that there’s so many professionals that have addictions problems, and they’re mental health problems. They stem from somewhere else. And alcohol is not my problem. The fact that I used to drink too much, that wasn’t my problem, that was what I did to cope with my problem. And I still think the culture looks at us: ‘oh you can’t hold your liquor; you can’t hold your liquor’.

Male voice: If we look at accepted practices within our culture right now, smoking is a prime example. It was, and continues to be, an accepted practice but less and less so. So culturally we’re seeing less and less Canadians smoking, and we’re seeing that same reduction within the Canadian Armed Forces.

Female voice: Is health is a shared responsibility? And considering that drug use is a multifaceted problem that has to do with health service policies, education, family, heredity — it can't be left only to the person who lives with addiction.

Male voice: I knew that I had a problem at that time, but I didn’t understand what they were trying to do. I didn’t understand the program itself.

Male voice: By taking care of the general health of the people, you’re going to make a better person. To make a better person, you’re going to have a better soldier, a better technician, a better whatever.

Male voice: It seems that more and more people are stepping forward, so they know that there’s help available, and from my point of view, slowly becoming less of a taboo to come forward.

Male voice: Absolutely there’s that shift that has taken place. And the leaders, and all leaders, and I’m talking about the most junior leader: kind of leading seamen, corporal on up; receive education, receive feedback, shown ‘what right looks like’ as Admiral Norman says, when it comes to addiction, mental illness and supporting our people and their recovery piece. And the message is, when they reach out for help we want the empathetic help to be out there. To reduce the stigma by other people sharing their stories, but also when people do reach out for help: the non-judgmental, hand to be there to guide them on the way to recovery.

Male voice: So addictions falls within the spectrum of a mental health condition. And certainly we want to ensure, particularly folks with more complex diagnosis like post-traumatic stress disorder, where there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ treatment; there’s always a risk that there will be folks who may not respond to one type of treatment, become frustrated with the approach and then look to things like drugs or alcohol in order to try to make the symptoms go away. But the reality is, it just compounds the issue. And so we really need to be cognizant of those suffering from mental health issues, other than addictions, to make sure that the addictions doesn’t become just one other thing on their plate of issues to deal with.

Male voice: I can remember my commanding officer at the time looked at me and said, “Jeff, you’re sick”. It’s like any other illness, you’re sick and you need somebody to help you get better. And I carried that through, he just said carry an open mind and go get some help.

Female voice: Well there’s two ways to get help. One is to go see your physician, nurse practitioner, and the other way is to self-refer to psychosocial services and ask to see an addiction councilor or a nurse or a social worker.

Female voice: For me, when I went to treatment the second time…when I was in treatment I looked at it as the fact that the military was spending a very significant…like tens of thousands of dollars to make me better. And as much as I wanted to get better for myself, which I needed to, I felt a responsibility to them, that if they were willing to, the minute I asked for help, they got me the help I needed, and they spent a lot of money doing it. I felt a responsibility to give it my all.

Female voice: Before any treatment can be offered we have to find out what the problem is, so there’s always a comprehensive assessment done in the beginning to find out the level of the problem. And then depending on the severity; the number of the symptoms that are there, we then recommend an appropriate level of treatment and there’s a variety of different treatments to meet the member’s needs at the time. So it’s not a one size fits all.

Male voice: So I was very fortunate. Both on the medical side of it and from the addictions team, as well as from my command structure that I had worked for, were very open to me getting help. They knew that this was just going to make me better.

Male voice: Well since I got to Shearwater in 2006 I’ve seen a shift in the culture.

Female voice: Many, many of our clients have overcome their fear, their barrier, which was fear of what would happen to them if they disclose they have a problem. They’ve overcome that, they’ve come in, they’ve worked hard, they’ve made a commitment to recovery. And they end up much happier in their personal life, they end up doing well in their career, they get promoted and they’re just generally happier all the way around. That’s the majority of our clients.

Male voice: I opened up to what they were saying and really trusted in them that the program was going to help me. And when I did that, it changed everything.

Male voice: And that’s why I come and do these things, and volunteer and everything else, because one person is going to be helped. If that one person helps one person, somebody is always going to benefit from this. Either the organization as a whole, an individual, or even myself, it even helps me. Because I know I’m giving back, it was given to me and I have a solution that works and I hope somebody else can pick up on that.

Female voice: It can be frustrating; it can be sad because you see individuals struggling so hard with their problem. And sometimes trying to do it on their own without help, so that’s the frustrating sad part of it for me. But it’s also incredibly rewarding when you see the benefits of recovery for those who have made that commitment to carry through.

Male voice: The Addictions Prevention Team and the program up here is fantastic. The people care about what they do and they focus on trying to help every person that comes in the door up there.

Male voice: I think it would have been harder in civilian life because I think if I was a civilian employee, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to be sent for a fifty-six-day treatment like this and all paid for. And I don’t think I would have had as many opportunity and chances as I had in the military. It was at the cost, yeah I got charged many times, paid many fines, but just because of the nature of the military and how it works and the punishment system, administrative system in a way, that the whole system brought me to where there was an opportunity for me to get better and they were ready to assist me with that.

Female voice: The military gave me everything I needed and provided me with so many resources that were out there, as long as I was willing to use them.

Male voice: Certainly we continue to move forward with the addictions program to address the full spectrum of addictions, in an effort to educate, and again change those cultural norms within the CAF culture.

Male voice: The Royal Canadian Navy has invested, I would say approximately, seventy days in recovery from addictions, because I went to a rehab clinic on the west coast in Nanaimo, and from mental illness. And for those seventy-five rough days, to date they’ve had about 3250 days of healthy service from myself. And my recovery began as a lieutenant. When I reached out for help I thought my career was over, well clearly it’s not. And again it’s because the stigma, the judgment, the reduction, the culture change, the acceptance that people can get sick but they can recover, and then become again useful members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the department.

Female voice: I feel the military has the help for the people, but the people have to be willing to want the help. To use what the military has.

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