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Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research Forum 2023

‘It takes a community to understand a community.’ These are the words with which Paul Ledwell, Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada, opened the Canadian Institute for Military and Veterans Health Research (CIMVHR) Forum 2023. Hosted this year in Ottawa-Gatineau on 16-18 October, the Forum brought together hundreds of researchers, policymakers, and service providers from across the world specialising in the health and wellbeing of military and ex-Service personnel, as well as their families. In gathering such a vibrant and diverse group of participants, the occasion provided an invaluable opportunity to consider the equally diverse challenges facing members of the global Armed Forces community.

With over 250 presentations delivered across the three days, this year’s Forum showcased the leading priorities within the field of military and veteran health. One leading area of consideration is military sexual trauma, which formed the focus of a compelling and moving session on the first day. Opening the discussion, Dr Anita Acai (McMaster University, Canada) presented an evaluation of the ‘Believe, Empower, Support: Together (BEST)’ initiative – a training programme which has been piloted by the Canadian Armed Forces to address cases of military sexual trauma. This was followed by a reflection on the effect of peer support when assisting those who have experienced in-Service sexual misconduct, with Dr Hamid Boland (Defence Research and Development Canada) describing how digital mobile applications have been leveraged across the Canadian Armed Forces to foster support communities and signpost relevant services. The final two presentations of the session addressed the legacies of military sexual trauma. Dr Joy MacDermid (Western University, Canada) explored the gendered pathways between sexual harassment and chronic pain amongst ex-Service personnel, while Shannon Orchard Young (McMaster University, Canada) addressed the impact which military sexual trauma can have on occupational performance upon leaving the Armed Forces.

The second day featured a similarly extensive array of subjects, including moral injury, post-Service employment, and disability. One session which demonstrated the international scope and value of the Forum focused on suicidal ideation and suicide prevention. The first to speak was Dr Daniel Dyball (King’s Centre for Military Health Research, UK), who outlined how researchers are utilising data from the ADVANCE cohort (a group of physically injured UK military personnel who served in Afghanistan) to explore the relationship between Service injury and suicidal ideation. Although the research is still ongoing, Dr Dyball went on to note that the impact of combat injury on mental health appears to be a crucial point of consideration, together with experiences of pain and physical (im)mobility. Broadening the focus of the conversation, Dr Janette Leroux (Queen’s University, Canada) reflected on the limited attention which has been awarded thus far to the role of families in public safety and military suicide prevention research. The final presentation of the session was delivered by Dr Henry Bowen (Military and Emergency Services Health Australia) and sought to ground Dr Leroux’s findings within a specific national context by highlighting the current lack of coordinated policy, research, and service provision for the families of Service personnel who die by suicide throughout Australia.

The significance of family amongst military and ex-Service personnel populations would be a dedicated point of discussion during the Forum’s final day. As the opening speaker of the ‘Family Challenges’ session, Dr Rachael Gribble (King’s Centre for Military Health Research, UK) delivered a presentation on the identity of UK ex-Service personnel’s partners. Far from representing a distinct time-period, Dr Gribble reported that military life remains an important factor in partners’ post-Service identities due, in part, to the effect which it can have on their employment opportunities. But it is not only the partners of ex-Service personnel whose sense of self and wellbeing are affected by the pursuit of a military career. For the session’s second presentation, Dr Navjot Bhullar (Edith Cowan University, Australia) reported on the impact of military life amongst children in Australian Service/ex-Service personnel households. Of particular concern is the limited support currently available to this population, with Dr Bhullar noting that more than half of the parents who participated in their research had expressed doubt over their ability to help their children come to terms with parental deployment and family transitions. Adding further insight, Linda Slapakova (RAND Europe, UK) concluded the session by presenting the findings of a project exploring the perceived impact of Service life on the financial stability of UK military families. Among the leading negative effects identified by the research were the accessibility and affordability of childcare, the hidden costs of relocation, and limited partner employment opportunities.

The CIMVHR Forum 2023 was a fantastic opportunity to synthesise research insights from academics, practitioners, and policymakers from around the world. We very much look forward to next year’s Forum which will be hosted in Winnipeg, Canada, along with the FiMT Research Centre’s own Conference which will be taking place on 13 May 2024 (the call for abstracts can be found here).