Mental health in the military: Ottawa to spend $200M over 6 years

A new survey suggests nearly 1 in 6 Canadian Forces members had experienced symptoms of a mental health or alcohol-related disorder in the last year

The federal government will provide $200 million over six years to address mental health issues among members of the Armed Forces.

"More must be done to combat mental illness in support of the Canadian Forces," Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said during a news conference at the International Security Forum in Halifax on Sunday morning.

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces also announced Sunday that an additional $16.7 million in funds will be available to support members of the Forces, veterans and their families.

The government says some of the money will go toward digitizing the health records of all serving personnel and investing in brain imaging technology.

There will also be additional investments in research aimed at finding better treatments and faster recoveries for serving members and veterans with mental health conditions.

The Canadian Forces will also hire additional staff to help educate serving members and their families in managing their reactions to stress, and recognizing mental duress.

Part of the money will go toward a new "Operational Stress Injury" clinic in Halifax with additional satellite clinics in:

- St. John’s

- Chicoutimi, Que.

- Montreal.

- Pembroke, Ont.

- Brockville.

- Kelowna, B.C.

- Victoria.

"Opening in the fall of 2015, the clinic will bring high-quality, specialized mental health services and support to veterans in the Halifax area," said Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.

He said the satellite clinics will be "front-line medical facilities with medical and mental-health rehabilitation professionals ready to support" soldiers.

Soldiers worry about mental-health stigma

The announcement comes just two days before the auditor general is expected to release a report on mental health in the Forces.

Statistics from the military show that 128 members of the regular forces and 32 reservists have committed suicide in the past decade.

A Statistics Canada survey released earlier this year suggests nearly one in six full-time members of the Canadian Forces experienced symptoms of mental health or alcohol-related disorders over several months in 2013.

The same survey shows that one-third of Canadian soldiers worry that seeking mental health services would harm their career.

The survey was developed by Statistics Canada with the Department of National Defence. About 6,700 regular force members and 1,500 reservists were interviewed from April to August in 2013.

"We firmly believe that these investments and initiatives will also help reverse the stigma of mental health, which is also a challenge," Fantino said.

'Toxic' relationship

The announcement also comes just days after veterans learned that the federal department responsible for their care and benefits was unable to spend upward of $1.1 billion of its budget over seven years.

Like other departments unable to spend their appropriation within the budget year, Veterans Affairs was required to return its unspent funds to the treasury.

The Royal Canadian Legion wrote Fantino on Thursday, demanding a detailed accounting of which programs had lapsed funding and why.

The figures put before Parliament show the Veterans Department handed back a relatively small percentage of its budget in 2005-06, but shortly after the Conservatives were elected the figure spiked to 8.2 per cent of allocation. The number began trending downward until 2010-11 when lapsed funds accounted for only 1.16 per cent of the department's budget, but the pot of unspent cash began growing again after 2011.

Fantino said during the news conference that the $1.1 billion is "not lost money" and the funding is recycled back into programs for veterans. Fantino said claims that the unused funds were a strategy to balance the federal budget are false. He called it a technical budget process that does not hamper services and programs for veterans.

Fantino said his department will be reaching out to the Royal Canadian Legion to provide more detailed information.

'No guarantees' funding will continue after election

Michael Blais, president and founder of the non-profit group Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said the relationship between Fantino and veterans is "toxic."

Blais said he welcomes the $200 million, but doubts it will be enough for what's being promised.

"We're all on the same page when we want to have comprehensive care for our young men and women who have sustained mental wounds," he told CBC News Network.

"Is it enough? Is it real? Is this not just a response to adverse press or is this a legitimate attempt to reach out and fix things? I think it's half and half. I think this government's in damage control."

Former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran expressed similar thoughts, calling the so-called benefits "empty promises."

"I don't listen to their rhetoric at all anymore," Stogran said during an interview on CBC's News Network. He added that the time has come for a public inquiry, if not a royal commission, to reveal to Canadians how "terribly dysfunctional" he says the Canadian Forces are.

He said despite the many recommendations that have been made over the past years, he's confident substantive change is not going to happen.

"All you have to do is track the Canadian Forces. They have this universality of service policy where if you're not fit to deploy, you're thrown out of the military. They haven't repealed that, they haven't reconsidered it and they are exempt the duty to accommodate that normal employers have when a person is injured in the workplace," he said.

Meanwhile, NDP critic for foreign affairs Peter Stoffer said "only time will tell" if it is enough money.

He said the announcement comes at an "obviously suspect" time with the auditor general's report expected in two days. There's no question that the government is trying to get ahead of the report and deflect some of the criticism over the returned $1.1 billion, said Stoffer.

Still, he wants to give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt.

“We’re hopeful that the government is starting to realize this issue is extremely serious and that this funding is going to be there," he said. "Hopefully, it's adequate in order to meet the needs of the men and women who serve our country and their families."

But, he said, the upcoming federal election complicates matters.

“Let’s face it. There is an election next year. We have no guarantees that funding will be restored or continue in this particular regard. So we have many more questions to ask this government.”

Correction : Veterans Affairs originally said a satellite clinic would be established in Hamilton. In fact, Hamilton will not be one of the satellite clinic sites.(Nov 24, 2014 4:30 PM)