When Canadian soldier Stéphane Grenier headed to Rwanda in 1994 as part of the UN peacekeeping force, he had no idea it was the beginning of a journey which would change his life forever.
He returned to Canada ten and a half months later grateful to be alive. But as he adjusted to “normal” life back home with his wife and children, he began to notice that something fundamental had shifted. There were changes that, in retrospect, he says, acted as signs of things to come. He was persistently impatient–the smallest thing could set him off. He had constant nightmares and difficulty sleeping. He experienced suicidal thoughts. Grenier knew something was wrong and tried to seek help but soon realized that “like numerous soldiers during the 1990s, I’d come into contact with a dysfunctional military health-care system and stale psychiatric methods, not to mention many doctors who were unaware of what war and peacekeeping could do to a person’s mind.” He discovered that “the military was completely unprepared to deal with the aftermath of sending thousands of people on peacekeeping missions that involved no peace at all.” He goes on to say “my initial experiences after seeking help inspired me to try and change what was evidently a broken and archaic system”. After the War: Surviving PTSD and Changing Mental Health Culture is part of that work.
A lot has changed in the world since Stéphane Grenier headed to Rwanda. We now know that being a peacekeeper is a lot more dangerous and potentially traumatic than many of us previously thought. We also now know the dangers of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome … something which wasn’t even on the radar in the early 1990s. Grenier notes that “until the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping was generally viewed as an easy task. Only those who went to an official war were deemed worthy of developing psychological difficulties. But after missions like those in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the military chain of command, along with the Canadian public, gradually began to recognize that peacekeeping could be as stressful as war.”
I found the book absorbing. It’s one man’s journey through mental illness but at the same time it’s a story of mental health in the military and in Canada itself. Grenier has been at the forefront of changing the treatment of mental health in the military. He also established the Occupational Stress Injury Support System (OSSIS) which, among other initiatives, sets up peer support systems for military personnel suffering from mental health difficulties. Grenier explains that “peer support provides someone in the abyss of despair a tangible example that someone else was once in a similar position, and they nonetheless recovered. For the ill person, their peer becomes living proof that they, too, can look forward to better days.”
Grenier has been involved in numerous other mental health initiatives both as part of the military and since retiring in 2012. Today he is involved in Mental Health Innovations Consulting (MHIC) which he established in order to dedicate his full attention to developing non-clinical mental health interventions as a complement to traditional clinical care.
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