What is Veterans Affairs doing about Mental Health?
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 1)

Over the past few years, the issue of mental illness has become increasingly prominent in Canada’s public discourse and Canadian military efforts in Afghanistan played a significant part in that. Military members, as well as civilians, returning from combat in Afghanistan needed assistance for illness and much as injury. The military health system was well-prepared to deal with the extreme physical injuries of returning soldiers. 

Unfortunately, however, the system was much less prepared to deal with mental illnesses resulting from exposure to dead bodies, bombings, stress, and numerous other reminders of war. Much has been done since 2006. Two prominent bodies, the Mental Health Commission and Mental Health Association, are working tirelessly to help citizens across Canada grapple with various illnesses. Increasingly, senior leaders at the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada are also focused on the issue. The military leadership, as well as Canadians, have done a lot to raise awareness of these illnesses and, equally as importantly, to reduce stigma. For instance, the Bell Let’s Talk series is a great effort to better understanding mental health.

But much more needs to be done. Across Canada, serious effort is needed to compile the research and data necessary to make positive changes to how we care for those affected by mental health issues. This is true of both the government and military.

FrontLine readers are no doubt aware of the numerous critiques of the Government’s support, administration and care of those who serve our nation in uniform – particularly care for military members who have returned to Canada following a deployment overseas and who face challenging mental health issues. The Opposition has been able to pick away at weaknesses in the care of Veterans – an issue that is at the core of the Conservative brand – prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to replace the hapless Julian Fantino as Minister of Veterans Affairs Canada with a much stronger administrator and communicator, Mr Erin O’Toole.

The Prime Minister had also previously transferred retired General Walt Natynczyk from a short stint as President of the Canadian Space Agency to Veterans Affairs as the Deputy Minister. Together, these two individuals will change the culture at that department. And they have help. Minister O’Toole quickly hired John MacDonell, arguably the most formidable Ministerial Chief of Staff that has served this Government. MacDonell previously worked at Foreign Affairs and National Defence before departing to work at a law firm in Ottawa.

MacDonell has always cared deeply for those who serve Canada and will undoubtedly be guided by his uncompromising principles in helping Minister O’Toole and Deputy Minister Natynczyk change a tired culture. In another key change, the affable and effective Martin Magnan was also moved to Veterans Affairs as Minister O’Toole’s Press Secretary. Magnan was a Public Affairs practitioner at the Department of National Defence for many years and maintains strong ties to that Department, including his wife who worked for a long-time with the Canadian Forces Health Services Group.

Administratively, it does not get better than the trio of O’Toole, Natynczyk and MacDonell. So, it is fair to say that, for the first time in a very long while, the leadership at Veterans Affairs is competent, caring, and ready to seize the files before them. If ever there was an opportunity to change the culture of that Department, a shift that is long overdue and absolutely necessary, this is the team to lead that shift.

Politically, the timing is right for action on this file. Care for ill military personnel is a political liability for the Conservative brand and needs to be addressed well before Canadians start paying attention to a federal campaign in late summer.

The Prime Minister’s Office expects results, but it has been a rocky start for the trio. Deep-seated angst among the veterans’ community will continue to surface, and the Veterans Charter remains a lightning rod for criticism. A recent Senate Committee appearance by CF leadership did nothing to abate these fears.

On February 4th, Lieutenant-General David Millar, Chief of Military Personnel; Colonel Hugh MacKay, Deputy Surgeon Genera, Canadian Forces Health Services Group (CFHSG); Col Andrew Downes, Director of Mental Health at CFHSG; and Col Rakesh Jetly, Mental Health Advisor at CFHSG, were witnesses at the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs to ­discuss medical, social, and operational impacts of mental health issues.

These witnesses spoke strategically about the collaborations that take place among portfolios, new technologies being utilized, and increased mental health research compiled by government, various institutes and Canadian universities. However, not once, in over an hour of testimony, did any of the witnesses tie these strategic initiatives to the care and assistance offered to those who suffer mental illnesses. No witness, no Senator, spoke with any passion about creating care programs to better meet the needs of the individual.

The chasm between strategic initiatives and ground truth has always existed, but three years after the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan, veterans deserve better than the platitudes offered by these witnesses. There was talk about bringing in the families of those who need care, which is a positive sign, but those discussions seemed to reflect the talking points provided to them more than a real concern for the families’ well-being.

Over and over again, the witnesses described how they need more data, more research, more effort to create the programs and care necessary to support those suffering from mental illness.

Issues with mental health have been known for numerous years, and the institution simply needs to move more quickly to address those issues. It is no longer viable to put the needs of soldiers on hold while leadership continues to evaluate “strategic collaborations”.

The Senators were as disappointing as the witnesses. Senator Joseph Day, the Committee Chair, seemingly had no knowledge of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign which has donated over $70 million to mental health organizations located across Canada. In fact, the campaign held an event at National Defence Headquarters the week before subcommittee took place. Senator Grant Mitchell passed on a second question to the witnesses, having heard all he needed to hear when General Millar assured him that “reservists are more resilient” than regular force members.

Minister O’Toole, Deputy Minister Natynczyk and John MacDonell have a large task before them in their efforts to provide better care to ill military members and recent veterans. It isn’t just Veterans Affairs Canada that needs change. Based on the committee appearance, the Canadian Forces needs to change its ethos, and Parliamentarians need to care. Canada’s veterans deserve better care for injuries and illnesses. Better care needs to start now.

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© 2015 Frontline Defence