Saving the Lives of War Veterans

The Veterans Transition Network has helped hundreds of soldiers deal with the psychological and physical aftermaths of combat.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

There has been an increase in the incidence of suicide in Canadian soldiers returning from war despite increased spending on the mental health budget. In September 2014, the Defence Department released new statistics showing that Canada’s military lost more soldiers to suicide than it did to combat in Afghanistan. These statistics have been cited as evidence that the government should be doing more for military personnel and that traditional methods of treatment are failing our veterans.

Fortunately, a new approach based on the research conducted by Marvin Westwood, Professor of Counselling Psychology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, is revolutionizing the way we treat veterans with depression and stress-induced injuries. Men, in general, are unlikely to seek help when dealing with depression. But military men are particularly reluctant because receiving a diagnosis of mental illness would effectively end their military careers. To overcome this challenge, Prof. Westwood developed the UBC Veterans Transition Network (VTN), a program that is separate from the military, and has had a tremendous amount of success working with these men in groups. In fact, the benchmark for success of the VTN is that none of the 500 men who have participated in the program have committed suicide.

The VTN course is very different from traditional forms of therapy because it capitalizes on a soldier’s desire to help other soldiers. The group approach works especially well for men who have been brought up in a team-based environment. Also, men are more likely to participate when they feel that their contribution may help another man.

According to Westwood, helping people repair from war-related injury is the best investment you can make. The successful treatment of more soldiers leads to more productive citizens and less trouble for families. Some of these men get their souls back.

The VTN has been so successful that Westwood’s group received a grant from Movember Canada to pilot its military-based program with non-military men at risk for depression, isolation and addiction. To date the results seen with the civilians is very promising.

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Marvin Westwood is a Professor of Counselling Psychology (Faculty of Education), Associate Member in the Faculty of Medicine and holds the Royal Canadian Legion Professorship. His major areas of teaching and research are focused on development, teaching and delivery of group-based approaches for counselling clients. He developed the UBC Veterans Transition Program to help promote recovery from war related stress injuries for which he received both the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals in 2005 and 2013. In 2012 he established the Centre for Group Counselling and Trauma for teaching and research in the area of group work. Finally, in 2013 he and a team of UBC researchers received a major three grant from Movember Canada for advancing the psychological health of men.

Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.