Collateral damage: Families of soldiers with PTSD struggle after Veterans Affairs counselling cut

Some family members of veterans suffering from mental health issues linked to their service say the federal government is cutting off their own publicly funded therapy - and seems unwilling to admit it.

'The department is disconnected from ... what goes on in injured veterans' households,' says one spouse

Shane Jones and his daughter Ruth wait with a service dog in a hallway at the IWK Children's Hospital in Halifax in 2019. (Veronica Jones)

Shane Jones's combat tour in Afghanistan ended in 2005. But the war followed him home.

The retired corporal's family — including his teenage daughter — have had to walk on eggshells often in the years since.

An armoured vehicle rollover left Jones with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress, injuries that changed him forever.

"My husband is not a violent man," said Veronica Jones, Shane's wife. "My husband suffers from severe PTSD.

"And for our daughter, growing up ... If you live by the cesspool, everybody gets splashed."

The Eastern Passage, N.S., family is among many affected by Veterans Affairs' move to tighten access to department-sponsored mental health services for veterans' family members.

The crackdown was prompted by the embarrassing revelation almost two years ago that a convicted killer — the son of a former soldier — received PTSD counselling for the murder he committed.

Veterans Affairs issues a denial

In an appearance before a House of Commons committee last week, a senior Veterans Affairs official denied that any families had been "cut off" from counselling services.

That comes as startling news to Jones and other veterans' families, whose therapy bills are now being paid out-of-pocket after initially being covered by the department.

Those relatives now want the opportunity to plead their cases before the Commons veterans committee when it reconvenes next month for hearings on the restrictions.

Shane and Veronica Jones. The family is among many affected by Veterans Affairs' move to tighten access to department-sponsored mental health services for veterans' family members. (Veronica Jones)

The public debate over the last several years has been limited to whether former soldiers are getting adequate help and treatment, said Veronica Jones.

"There needs to be an actual conversation about what the families are going through and how the families need support," she said.

Her 14-year-old daughter Ruth was diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder by two doctors, who have attributed her condition to the stress of living in a home with someone who has a severe brain injury.

Veterans Affairs paid for her counselling — then cut her off in September as part of a sweeping reinterpretation of its guidelines.

'I am heartbroken'

She no longer fits one of the criteria for receiving funded treatment — that treatment be "short-term." Veterans Affairs also questioned her diagnosis.

Her parents are now paying $600 per month for counselling and hoping the backlog in the provincial system eases.

"I am actually heartbroken," said Veronica Jones. "I think the department is disconnected from the reality of what goes on in injured veterans' households."

The couple has fought repeated battles with Veterans Affairs for the better part of a year over the support provided to Shane Jones.

Their confrontations with the bureaucracy have been heated at times.

Shane Jones's family says his file was red-flagged: Veterans Affairs staff filed a complaint with the RCMP that went nowhere. Now, the Canadian Human Rights Commission is looking into a claim of discrimination filed against the department by Shane Jones.

A scandal triggers a policy shift

If the department knows "there are minor children living in the house with someone who has severe PTSD, then they should be covering the children," Veronica Jones said.

The department tightened the rules governing when families can receive subsidized counselling after facing a firestorm of criticism in the summer of 2018 over the case of convicted killer Christopher Garnier, the son of a former soldier who was given taxpayer-funded PTSD treatment because of the murder he committed.

Christopher Garnier is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder and indignity to a human body in the 2015 death of Truro police officer Catherine Campbell. (CBC)

Former veterans minister Seamus O'Regan, blindsided by the revelation, asked for a review. That's when the bureaucracy kicked into gear.

The current minister, Lawrence MacAulay, has asked his officials to be as flexible as possible in deciding whether family members qualify.

As part of a year-long review, the department has notified 133 families, in writing, that their counselling benefits may be discontinued, according to numbers from MacAulay's office.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay says he has asked his officials to be as flexible as possible in deciding whether family members qualify. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The figures do not include, however, the number of families who were informed directly by case workers or counsellors that their mental health services had been cut off.

That's a very different picture from the one Michel Doiron, the department's assistant deputy minister of service delivery, offered MPs last week when he told the Commons veterans affairs committee that no one had been cut off.

"When people say they've been cut off, nobody has been cut off," he said on Thursday.

"Some individuals did receive information saying that we're giving you an additional year and working with you to say either you stay in the program, or, if you're no longer eligible based on the criteria of the program, we will work with you to find a mental health practitioner."

Challenged during the hearing by Conservative MP Dane Lloyd, Doiron later said he wanted to "clarify" the remark. 

He confirmed that "some people had been refused" coverage but said he could not tell the committee whether the individuals' bills had been covered by the department previously.

In the cases where family members were cut off, Doiron said, the mental health services they were receiving could not be linked to a veteran's recovery. According to the department's guidelines, taxpayer-funded treatment for family members must help a former soldier — a rule that clearly was not followed in Garnier's case.

Kim Davis of Lawrencetown, N.S., found out she had been cut off when she arrived at her counsellor's office for a session in mid-February.

She said she was astonished that Doiron would say what he said before the Commons committee.

"Oh my God, I've met him," said Davis, whose husband, Blair, is a former soldier who has struggled with mental health issues since returning from Bosnia.

"He knows my husband is a veteran with PTSD. He knows I receive counselling as a result of my husband's PTSD." 

Davis has spoken out on behalf of veterans' families in the past and has appeared before Commons committees on three other occasions. She has even pointed federal officials to international research on the impact a soldier's PTSD can have on spouses and children.

Veterans Affairs "constantly touts that their decisions are based on research and backed up by research," she said.

"Well, this policy ... goes against every research paper out there."




Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.