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When Living is Hell :
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among the Canadian Armed Forces

Crash landing

Interview with Luc Côté, director of Crash Landing

By Mélissa Martin, M.Ps. Psychologist

and Maxime Beaulieu, B.A. Psychology student


A Different Perception of the Soldiers

Luc Côté, a scriptwriter, director, and producer for many years, never thought he would have, one day, made Crash Landing, a documentary about soldiers suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His perception of soldiers changed drastically after an encounter with some of them who used to meet regularly in a tavern to discuss. Côté met well-spoken men and women who were capable of introspection, who expressed their emotions and who talked openly about what they experienced during peace missions abroad. “They went to war to defend their ideals, they want to change the world and they are devoted to the mission, says Côté. For them, it’s an honour to be part of the army. They are inspiring”. Côté was fascinated by his novel perception of the soldiers. Furthermore, he would have never been able to suspect how much war could leave an indelible imprint on a person. “I started to think about one of my friends who made the Vietnam War and I began to understand some of the things he had previously told me. Once, he told me that 20 years after the war, he found himself lying on his stomach in the middle of a crowd after hearing gun shots, which were actually fireworks. Nowadays, Veterans Affairs call veterans in advance to inform them about fireworks shows in their area!” These reactions (e.g. flashbacks, hypervigilance) are symptoms of PTSD.

“According to the Ombudsman of the Canadian Armed Forces, 15-20% of soldiers coming back from peace missions are sufferingfrom Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” 

An Emotional Shooting

In his movies, Côté likes to explore social issues, like homelessness, poverty and grief. He is used to deal with people in distress. Nevertheless, addressing the issue of PTSD was hard emotionally. He met about one hundred soldiers suffering from PTSD in group therapy. “The movie was a therapy for the soldiers, but also for me. I played the role of a psychologist. Some people were calling me to discuss things that were not related to the movie. Also, during the shooting, a soldier made a suicide attempt. What was I suppose to do? I don’t have any training in psychology! I was trying to remain emotionally distant, but it was not easy”.

Open Up And Talk About it!

            By tackling a subject that used to be ignored by the Armed Forces, Côté tried to bring to the soldiers’ consciousness the issue of PTSD. He wanted to convey the message that soldiers are not alone and to encourage them to talk about their difficulties to friends and family. Thousands of soldiers are ashamed to say that they have psychological problems, an invisible wound. A recent study published in the Medical Care journal (Fikretoglu, Guay, Pedlar, & Brunet, February 2008) indicates that soldiers are hesitant to consult a doctor. “While problems such as depression, alcoholism, social phobia and PTSD are frequent among soldiers, less than half of them (43%) received any treatment”. According to Stéphane Guay, a majority of soldiers denies having any problem. This could explain the low consultations rate.
            In his movie, Côté noticed that young and psychologically healthy soldiers seem to deny that PTSD could affect them eventually. During the mission, soldiers are able to work and function well. Nonetheless, when the mission is over and they return home, it becomes harder. Many returning soldiers will use drugs or alcohol to soothe themselves and several will commit suicide. Since a couple of years, there seems to be an increasing number of suicides among the Canadian Armed Forces.

 “If you’re sick, you’re weak, you’re a coward,
especially in the infantry”

            According to Côté, the peers’ judgment is particularly ruthless in the military world and mental illness is usually censured. At the same time, our society is also judging negatively sick people. In the case of depression, for example, there are still people who mistakenly assume that their colleagues, relatives or friends are depressed in order to obtain financial compensation. Our society’s attitude toward mental illness has to change. A psychological wound, even if invisible, is still incapacitating and can be even more distressing than a physical injury. Côté mentions that his movie has helped families of soldiers to better understand the impact of war. Some soldiers even received apologies from their families after they had seen the movie. 

A Still Taboo Subject?   
With the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media have no choice now but to talk and write about the repercussions of war and PTSD. When the movie came out in 2005, the issue of PTSD was not often discussed in the media. The movie has helped to raise the Canadian Armed Forces’ and the government’s awareness about the psychological effects of war. Crash Landing was presented in Ottawa to the Governor General of Canada and the Lieutenant-General, The Honourable Roméo A. Dallaire, suffering himself from PTSD. Nowadays, PTSD is a common subject and an article about it or on the consequences of war on the mental health of soldiers is published almost weekly.
The army now seems to recognize the psychological problems that soldiers have to face when they come back from their missions. This is an important improvement since acknowledging the existence of a problem is the first step if one wants to make changes. Côté’s movie has undoubtedly contributed to this situation. In fact, over the last 5 years, the Armed Forces have invested 100 millions $ in prevention and intervention programs. While this is a considerable sum of money, needs remain unfulfilled and many soldiers still do not have access to mental health care.

Opération Retour was produced by Érézi film productions.

You can order the documentary at CinéFête:

You can also purchase the film in Renaud-Bray librairies and Archambault stores in the Montreal area.