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Commemoration versus contagion

PhD candidate in the Department of History, Matthew Barrett will present his research on the attitudes of the Canadian public towards suicides in the military over the past 100 years. 

In May 1918, Lt.-Col. Sam Sharpe jumped to his death from a window in a Montreal hospital after serving eleven months on the Western Front during the First World War. His death was treated as a combat fatality and the Toronto Globe noted that it was as if he had died on the “field of honour.”

Matthew Barrett, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Queen’s, notes that had Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s death taken place today, he likely wouldn’t have been included in the casualties number as his death took place in Canada, away from the front.

This observation, amongst others, is discussed in a paper that Mr. Barrett and his supervisor Allan English will present at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum next week.

Lt. -Col. Sam Sharpe
 Lt.-Col. Sam Sharpe

“There are two main perspectives when it comes to how suicide in the military is treated. The first is one discussed by Sen. Roméo Dallaire: if we do not appropriately commemorate the individuals who take their own lives in the military then the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health will continue to exist,” says Mr. Barrett. “Another view is one expressed by Gen. Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, who disagrees and says that if Canada acknowledges suicides as casualties of an entire mission then it may add honour to the act of suicide and cause a contagion effect.”

Mr. Barrett hopes his research on the attitudes of the Canadian public towards suicides in the military over the past 100 years will assist stakeholders in prioritizing their de-stigmatization efforts, as military suicides outnumber combat deaths during the recent Canadian mission in Afghanistan.

“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,” says Mr. Barrett. “When Maj. Michelle Mendes took her own life in Afghanistan in 2009 officials did not make a clear distinction between death by suicide and killed in action. Her body was repatriated to Canada along the Highway of Heroes.”

Maj. Michelle Mendes
Maj. Michelle Mendes

It’s possible that a commemoration approach to military suicides might risk the start of a contagion effect, but it’s also vital to recognize that focusing solely on this idea of contagion and copycat suicides excludes an opportunity for commemoration, notes Mr. Barrett.

“A long-held view about military suicide in Canada is one that stigmatizes the act of suicide, but not necessarily the victims,” says Mr. Barrett. “Ideally, this research may help inform stakeholders of the type of stigma reduction strategies needed.”

Mr. Barrett and Dr. English’s paper, “Absolutely incapable of ‘Carrying on’ – Attitudes of the Canadian Public towards Suicides in the Canadian Military - 1914-2014” will be presented at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research Forum 2014 next week in Toronto.

For more information on Forum 2014, follow this link.