Dean On Campus Blog

A tragedy turns the spotlight to mental health

This past week, Canadians have been processing the devastating story of the deaths of military veteran Lionel Desmond, his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter, Aliyah, and his mother, Brenda. In what the media is calling an apparent murder-suicide, it is believed that Lionel took the lives of his family members before taking his own.

lionel-desmondLionel (pictured, right), who had recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, had been living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that had been with him since finishing his first tour in Afghanistan in 2007. “He would flip between being a loving husband and father and a shell-shocked veteran. He had nightmares, flashbacks and struggled to find a treatment that would help him,” said Lionel’s sister in law, Shonda Borden.1

While Lionel was receiving mental health treatment and support, that support ended upon his release from the military in 2015. Upon returning home to Nova Scotia, Lionel was unable to get the help with PTSD that he needed. According to Lionel’s family, he had been actively seeking treatment from St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., but had been turned away.2

Knowing that Lionel was struggling to get the support he needed brings up a difficult question: should he have had better support, could this tragedy have been prevented?

The Canadian Mental Health Association describes PTSD as a mental illness “that causes intrusive symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. Many people have vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts of the event that seem to come from nowhere… PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions.”3 And the impact on our military and Veterans is widespread: based on statistics from Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defence, “nearly one in 10 of the Canadian military personnel who took part in the mission in Afghanistan are now collecting disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.”4

cimvhr-spThe incidence mental illness among Veterans is something that the Canadian Institute for Military & Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR), housed here at Queen’s, focuses on in its work. Made up of 42 collaborating universities, the institute acts as a focal point for research on the health and healthcare needs of the Canadian military, Veterans and their families. CIMVHR also acts as a conduit between the academic community, government organizations and industry. In building and fostering a body of research, CIMVHR is poised to disseminate the most current evidence, which can be used to educate clinicians and policy makers and to form recommendations that will improve the support and care that our military, Veterans and their families receive.

Out of a heart-breaking situation, the fact that the national spotlight has again been turned to mental health, the health of our Veterans and the ongoing struggles that they face when they transition to civilian life might be seen as one of the few positive outcomes. I hope that Lionel’s story serves as motivation for a focus on the need for augmented resources for mental health issues in general, and for those affecting our military, Veterans and their families in specific.

Please share your thoughts by commenting on the blog…or better yet, drop by the Macklem House, my door is always open.




Thank you to Jen Valberg for her assistance in preparing this blog.

7 Responses to A tragedy turns the spotlight to mental health

  1. Ray Bell says:

    Very interesting and certainly a heart breaking tragedy.l think it would be important to have not only the resources you stressed but also make PTSD an important part of the curriculum in military training. l have no knowledge as to what degree PTSD is discussed.Hopefully it is not the “elephant in the room”. History is filled with the misunderstanding and mistreatment of PTSP especially in WW1, WW2, Korean war,Vietnam war and, unfortunately, even in present day wars. Many WW1 soldiers faced a firing squad or being locked up in an “insane institution” for what we now call PTSD and many WW2, Korean War and Vietnam War vets with PTSD were shunned if they showed any “weakness” about their tour of duty.In the US, more Vietnam veterans have died from suicide than were killed on the battle fields of that tragic war.

  2. Bill Moore Meds ''62 says:

    Thanks for highlighting the large and growing problems of PTSD among combat veterans, their families and their healthcare providers. I was impressed when I first learned about Queen’s role with the Canadian Institute for Military & Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) — now even more so. Surely they will accomplish much good when their findings/treatment innovations/policy recommendations are shared and acted on not only by military but also by civilian healthcare providers/administrators.

    Trauma can occur in many different settings, not only in combat zones and maybe not as severe but still PTSD potentially with small numbers of similar unfortunate outcomes. It must be extremely difficult for Family Practitioners and even Psychiatrists to predict compensating breakdowns. Unfortunately we usually seem to learn about bad outcomes, not the many more treatment successes. Fortunately the occasional grim incident may encourage greater support for better understanding and support for needed PTSD services.

  3. Don Braden M.D. FRCPC says:

    A tragedy indeed. This particular case may focus the spotlight on Mental Health services for the Military both active and Veterans. The spotlight has been on for some time with regard to Mental Health generally thanks to the actions of Bell Canada and the “let’s talk ” program. Public awareness is increased both by such programs and by specific often tragic situations. One hopes that awareness will lead to increased action

  4. Kate Johnson says:

    I would have been very inclined to agree with all you say here before I read Heather Mallick’s commentary on this issue earlier this week. When I reflect on the many veterans and other people I have encountered with PTSD, I think you are both right. While it is entirely possible that Desmond killed his first victim in a flashback and then continued killing in an over-correction (I saw that scenario many times in my corrections work), I think it is also important that we don’t let him off the posthumous hook too quickly. While we need to continue to do more to care for people with mental illness, we need to be careful not to let it be an excuse. People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Most people with PTSD do not kill others. It seems Shanna Desmond told family she was afraid but they counseled her to stand by her man. Let’s get more help for people with PTSD- if that is enough to prevent serious victimization, I will rejoice! I suspect there is more for us to do than that.

  5. Katherine Waller says:

    I agree with Kate. We are too quick to point to “mental illness” as the cause of these dramatic acts of violence. Killing your family is not a symptom of PTSD. I wonder if the “spotlight” actually does more harm than good. Increased stigma with no follow-up changes in mental health funding policies.

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