Former Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire may be one of the most high-profile cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ever. The former top military commander of the United Nations mission in Rwanda in 1994, Dallaire is now a Liberal Senator in Canada.
He has been an outspoken advocate for PTSD treatment since his own struggles with the illness started after his time in Rwanda. Dallaire has also written a book on his Rwanda experience, Shake Hands with the Devil.
Dallaire discussed his struggles with PTSD with The Journal in time for Remembrance Day.
Slave River Journal (SRJ): If you will, please give us an idea of some of your experiences in struggling to overcome post traumatic stress disorder.
Romeo Dallaire (RD): The trauma of Rwanda had deep physical and psychological impacts on me. Living with my injury, post traumatic stress disorder means that daily, I suffer from insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, fits of anger, depression and withdrawal. Your mind with time, in fact, doesn’t erase things that are traumas. It makes them clearer. They become digitally clearer and then you are able to sit back and all of a sudden have every individual scene come to you instead of the massive blur of many scenes I saw every day. This also means that simple daily life activities can bring me back to Rwanda, and what I experienced there. I sometimes get panic attacks triggered by these memories.
SRJ: For you at that time, what were the main barriers to seeking help?
RD: As a general, people expected me to lead and to complete my duties and my command tasks. I struggled to complete my responsibilities while privately grappling with PTSD. To get help was to accept this reality. There was a macho mentality that existed within the Canadian Forces, which was a hurdle in acknowledging less visible, psychological injuries as an injury equally valid to an amputated leg, for example. Additionally, PTSD was not well understood in the 1990s and treatment for it was not as well developed as it is today.
The Canadian Forces have come a long way since then. There is now pre-deployment training related to PTSD and there is also a process of post-deployment screening that can help identify personnel suffering from this kind of injury. There is a process to raise awareness of the troops about this issue to reduce the associated stigma.
SRJ: How did your experiences with PTSD shape your role in becoming an advocate for PTSD treatment and facilities like those now employed by the Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs?ii
RD: After discovering that treatment was available and realizing that many other Canadian Forces members were also suffering as I was, I felt that, as the general responsible for military troops in my function of ADM (Personnel) in 1996, I had to go public. Since then, I have tried to fight the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and explain that psychological injuries are as painful and long-lasting as physical injuries. In going public with my operational stress injury, I urged the medical branch of the Canadian Forces to accelerate the training and facilities required to treat this injury. For a long time, there was a shame related to psychological injury and mental health conditions in the Canadian Forces. Now, the situation is a bit brighter. Prevention programs are in place and medical resources are available through the CF and Veterans Affairs Canada. The level of awareness surrounding these issues has been raised considerably in the last 20 years, though the system is not yet perfect.ii
SRJ: What are your thoughts on the progression of PTSD services and treatment available to serving members and veterans since the early 2000s?
RD: The CF has moved forward by leaps and bounds over the last decade. However, it still does not have a foolproof method of determining sustained psychological injuries. A better detection method may help us to prevent the injury from leading to suicide attempts. The challenge with PTSD is that symptoms are not always immediately present. PTSD can develop years after the conditions that caused it. In those situations, the CF or VAC cannot help the individual if he or she doesn’t first seek help themselves.
SRJ: Why is it so important to you to be so public about your experiences with PTSD?
RD: In bringing awareness to the symptoms of PTSD and publicly dealing with my injury, others may recognize themselves in my experience and seek help. Military service personnel, and first responders, including police, paramedics and firefighters, among others, are all susceptible to operational stress injuries through their profession. In speaking out about my injury, however, I am also fighting the negative stigma attached to mental health issues in general. It is not only those with PTSD that I hope to empower to get the help they need, but Canadians in general suffering mental health disorders.
SRJ: What message would you have for a soldier or veteran who worries he/she may be suffering from PTSD?
RD: If there is an inexplicable change in mood or physical well-being and symptoms such as hyper-vigilance (high state of awareness and stress related to possible threats even in safe location), fits of anger, depression, nightmares or insomnia, I advise people to seek a professional medical assessment. I would also advise them to seek support from a veteran’s organization or peer support group. A lot of programs are now available across the country to help veterans and current members of the Canadian Forces to deal with their symptoms. Improvements can still be made, but there are resources in place that can make a difference in the lives of veterans and their families. Although everyone’s experience is different, I think first and foremost it is important that people who are facing depression talk to someone they trust – it is of the utmost importance that you have someone to listen. Beyond that – don’t withdraw, don’t surrender, don’t give up.