(Canadian OH&S News)
In the wake of recent suicides among members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the Department of National Defence (DND) has announced plans to begin hiring mental health professionals — fulfilling a need that the military has had for more than a decade.
“We can confirm that 54 applicants are in the final interview process in order to fill the 447 positions,” a source with the Canadian Forces Health Services’ (CFHS) public affairs department told COHSN. “This plan includes measures such as the hiring of psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health nurses, social workers, addictions counsellors and case managers, as well as enhancing existing support programs.”
The announcement came after a series of soldier suicides that has rocked the Canadian military in recent months. News reports suggest that there have been as many as 10 suicides in the last two months alone.
Despite the DND’s claim that it’s moving ahead on the issue, some are skeptical. Joyce Murray, a Liberal MP representing the Vancouver Quadra riding, said that “there has been a goal of a certain number of health professionals” previously set, along with funding, but that it was never completed.
She added that the military’s previous attempts to hire mental health staff were blocked by the department. “There’s been a deliberate frustration of filling those positions, due to budget cuts and [a] hiring freeze,” she charged. “The bureaucratic process forced a written application for every hire, even though the positions had been identified as needed, and even though the commitment was made to fill them and the funding was there. They still had to have a written request to a deputy minister committee, which either turned down the request because of a hiring freeze, or by the time the whole process was completed, the candidate was no longer available,” she argued.
Murray added that she has heard “accounts of people who, when they step forward because they’re having difficulty, end up waiting tremendous time before they see a medical professional. And until they’ve been formally diagnosed and referred to treatment, they cannot get access to the operational stress injury clinics that the government has been touting.”
But according to the CFHS, the DND has simply had trouble finding the right people. “Mental health professionals are typically in short supply in Canada,” the CFHS source said, “and it can be difficult to attract qualified and experienced candidates into the public service.”
In 2012, the federal government invested $11.4 million into building a mental health program for the CAF. The CFHS said that the money had been used to reduce patients’ wait times and invest in technology for services in remote locations. “Reduced wait times are being accomplished through various means, including a deliberate and concerted recruitment and retention strategy to ensure a skilled and sustainable mental health workforce.”
Murray referred to a 2009 study by the Standing Committee on National Defence, Doing Well and Doing Better, which focused on ways to prevent and reduce post-traumatic stress disorder in the military. “This committee came up with some very practical and doable recommendations,” she said. “There has never been a government review of these recommendations, and so there’s been no systematic effort to act on them,” she argued.
Murray also charged that the government has a dismissive attitude towards soldiers who need help and that resources are not available in all cases.
In a Jan. 28 press release, the DND stated that mental health in the military sector was “a priority for the Government of Canada and the CAF.”