The number of former soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress has more than tripled since Canada first deployed troops to Afghanistan, according to new figures released by Veterans Affairs Canada.

With the country's involvement in the war set to continue until 2011, the numbers are only expected to get worse.

The rising tide of psychiatric disorders among relatively young men and women is the biggest challenge facing the system of veterans care, which until recently had been geared toward geriatric issues, Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said.

"It is the challenge of the future," he said in an interview with the Canadian Press.

Of the 10,252 Veterans Affairs clients with a psychiatric condition, 63 per cent have a post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD condition, said a briefing note prepared for Thompson last summer.

"Over the past five years, the number of clients with a psychiatric condition has tripled, increasing from 3,501 to 10,252; the number of clients with a PTSD condition has more than tripled, increasing from 1,802 to 6,504 as of March 31, 2007."

The statistics represent those who are no longer serving in uniform. The Defence Department keeps its own, separate tally of troops suffering from stress injuries.

Figures obtained last summer by the Canadian Press show that of 1,300 Canadian Forces members who served in Afghanistan since 2005, 28 per cent had symptoms suggestive of one or more mental-health problems. The numbers are based on post-deployment screening.

Of those, just over six per cent were possibly suffering from PTSD and another five per cent showed symptoms of major depression.

Hearing about PTSD to be held

On Thursday, the House of Commons defence committee voted to hold hearings on the impact of post-traumatic stress within the military, but at the insistence of Conservative MPs witnesses will be heard behind closed doors.

Both National Defence and Veterans Affairs have faced repeated warnings during the last year about the looming mental-health crisis.

"Without an aggressive response, many veterans have the potential to harm themselves or others," Veterans Affairs staff wrote in a note to Thompson. "The earlier the intervention, greater the chances of recovery."

The Conservatives responded in the 2007 federal budget with $9 million, allowing the Veterans Affairs Department to open five operational stress-injury clinics across the country. The new centres are in addition to the Defence Department's existing five stress clinics, which first began appearing in the late 1990s.

New Democratic defence critic Dawn Black said the measures taken to
date have not been adequate.

"When they talk about support for our troops, the mental and social help they need, clearly it is not there," she said.

Thompson said health-care professionals in both departments are working together at trying different early-intervention strategies, but getting around emotional barricades erected by most soldiers has proven to be daunting.

"Many of them still suffer in silence," he said. Senior commanders have acknowledged the reluctance of soldiers to come forward after they've experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Compounding the problem is a shortage of psychiatrists and other mental-health staff within the military. The auditor general took issue with the shortage last fall, issuing a sharp rebuke saying the system cannot meet the growing demand.

"As a result, members are being sent to civilian private practitioners, where it is difficult for the department to monitor their care," Sheila Fraser said last October.

The military hopes to double the number mental-health staff by 2009, going to 447 from 229 at an estimated price tag of $98 million.

Prior to going overseas, soldiers are given briefings that involve a psychiatrist, a social worker and a mental-health nurse. Their services are also available at Kandahar airfield for deployed troops.

Within four months of coming home, soldiers receive a post-deployment screening.

PTSD is a complicated condition that can involve nightmares, flashbacks, vivid memories, sleeping disorders, anger and substance abuse.