Legion worries soldier deaths may rise after DND cuts
An official with the Royal Canadian Legion said she expects more Canadian veterans will die as a result of federal spending cuts on mental health services for soldiers.
"I firmly believe that we're going to see the numbers of suicide incidents increase and that is unacceptable," Patricia Varga, the dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, told CBC News.
The Department of National Defence reports the number of Canadian Forces personnel who took their own lives increased from 12 in 2010 to 20 last year.
Notices went out earlier this month to some medical professionals who help soldiers deal with suicidal thoughts and recover from the stress of serving in war zones.
Fifteen out of 25 health workers have been notified they may lose their jobs.
Their union said the DND's four-person deployment mental health research section is being shut down.
Also, eight of 18 epidemiologists and researchers may lose their jobs analyzing mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
The cuts come at a very bad time, said Varga.
"We've had major heavy operational deployments over the years – to the Balkans, to Afghanistan – and we don't know full extent of the cases of mental illness," she said.
"We don't think it's been felt, by any means, yet. It's coming."
Varga said Canada sends its soldiers on missions over and over again, so the federal government has a moral obligation to keep looking for better treatment and make sure the soldiers are properly cared for when they come home.
DND defends spending record
But Josh Zanin, press secretary for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, contends the DND has a good track record in terms of funding mental health.
"The death of even one member of the Canadian Forces is one too many," Zanin said, "The Government takes this issue seriously, which is why great efforts have been made to identify those who are at risk, and to provide them with the treatment, assistance and other types of support that they need."
Zanin told CBC News the government has increased the number of mental health professionals available to Canadian Forces personnel to about 380, up from 230 in 2006.
Compared with other NATO nations, the Canadian Forces has the greatest ratio of mental health workers to soldiers, he said.
Rear-Admiral Andrew Smith, chief of military personnel, and Col. Jean-Robert Bernier, deputy surgeon general, also said in a press conference two weeks ago that health services for Canadian Forces personnel have been "dramatically" enhanced in the last few years.
"Our health services overall have been expanded, improved and enhanced to a level far beyond where we were a decade ago," Bernier said.
Bernier said that $38.6 million is spent annually on mental health for the Canadian Forces and that the number of employees working in the field is scheduled to increase to more than 450.
"We do have challenges to address, particularly with mental health services related primarily to the stresses of military operations and the limited availability of mental health clinicians in certain regions of the country, but we overall have a robust system, strong leadership support, both military and political, and our challenges are not related to budgetary constraints," said Bernier.