Mental health services 'not perfect,' military says

Chief of defence staff Gen. Walt Natyncyk and other military officials said Friday that mental health services at the Canadian Forces have improved but need more work and they maintained that any job cuts won't affect quality of services.

Top military officials say progress made and more needs to be done

Gen.Walt Natynczyk, shown at a mental health awareness event in 2009, today was among military officials who said the services for Canadian Forces have been improved but still need work. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The health system for Canada's soldiers is "robust" and its quality will be maintained despite job cuts that are on their way, top military officials said Friday, but they acknowledged the system is "not perfect."

Chief of defence staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk and other officials held a news conference Friday in Ottawa in the wake of reports that budget at the Department of National Defence will lead to the closure of programs to monitor mental health and work on suicide prevention for Canada Forces members.

The union representing some health professionals who work for DND said Thursday that notices were sent to employees informing them that their jobs are on their line. Some of the positions include researchers and epidemiologists who specialize in suicide and post-tramautic stress disorder. Eight out of 18 positions are being cut, according to the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and various programs are slated to be shut down, which will mean more job losses, the union said.

However, Rear-Admiral Andrew Smith, chief of military personnel, and Col. Jean-Robert Bernier, deputy surgeon general, discussed in detail all of the health programs and services that are offered to members of the Canadian Forces and said they 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 rise fom the current 378 to more than 450.

"We do have challenges to address, particularly with mental health services related primarly 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.

Mental health a top priority

The officials said the mental health of soldiers and their families is a top priority and they are committed to improving access to services.

"The current services and mental health programs offered to our members are comprehensive yet they are not perfect. We have learned much, we have more to learn," said Smith.

The officials were asked to respond to the reports about the job cuts and Smith acknowledged that there is a review underway to find "efficiencies" in the system but said no final decisions have been made about who is getting cut.

Employees in the public service first receive notices that their jobs are "affected" and then later find out whether they are going to be offered a position elsewhere or declared "surplus" and out of a job.

"We're not at a definitive state yet in terms of assessing exactly where those efficiences are going to come from but that work's going to continue, while we look to ultimately preserve the quality of the frontline services," Smith said.

Bernier said that regardless of the outcome of the budget review, the military will maintain its health research capacity by making use of resources beyond its own internal staff. He said the Canadian Forces has developed research partnerships with academic institutions and with NATO, for example, that will help mitigate any staff layoffs, and they contract out some health services.

The officials did confirm that two psychologists who work in Ottawa have agreed to commute to the base in Petawawa to continue serving patients who live there.

Smith said he believes Canadian Forces members have access to "one of, if not the, best health care system in Canada," but he admitted it's "not perfect" and there is more work to do.

Natynczyk, meanwhile, also said much more can be done to help soldiers, and he made an appeal to health professionals.

"I want to use this opportunity to ask for more help to try to find those great medical specialists, the psychologists and the psychiatrists who will actually serve on our isolated bases and wings," he said. The bottom line is we want to improve the care that we provide to our men and women. Any reductions or realignments we make are aimed at doing just that."