CF surgeon general Jung: Canadian Forces system can deal with PTSD

By CYNTHIA MÜNSTER-The Hill Times- Published January 18, 2010

More Canadian soldiers than ever are publicly talking about the effects of PTSD and it’s unclear how many more will return home from Afghanistan with the stress disorder, but Canadian Forces Surgeon General, Commodore Hans Jung, who was appointed to his post in July, says despite some very visible stories of people “falling through the cracks” and not getting the services they need to deal with serious mental health problems, the Canadian Forces does have a good system in place.

Mr. Jung said the military is hoping to double the number of mental health staff; the objective was to go from 229 to 447 by 2009, at an estimated cost of $98-million, but that number wasn’t achieved because of the shortage of healthcare workers.

“Since 2007 to now there’s been a massive change in mental health in particular in terms of increasing resources. We talked about $98-million, doubling our number of mental health resources this year, and we’re not quite there because of mental health folks, as part of all healthcare personnel, there’s shortage all across Canada,” said Mr. Jung in an interview with The Hill Times. “But we are still much better and we know, for example, in the military we spend six times more per capita on mental health services than in the civilian healthcare system, so we have a very good healthcare system.”

Mr. Jung acknowledged that stigma is still the last barrier towards people getting the treatment they need for mental health. The stigma is in society and ingrained in the individuals but he said the Canadian Forces’ ‘Be the Difference’ campaign shows that the Forces are trying to break down the barriers of institutional stigma.

The number of soldiers affected by PTSD remains largely unknown, but the Canadian Forces have the results of 12,717 screening questionnaires. Some 6.1 per cent of the respondents indicated signs of PTSD, depression, or both, and 12.9 per cent were consistent with one or more of six common mental health problems, according to DND’s figures released in May 2009.

Mr. Jung said the 6.1 per cent number has been consistent with the percentages coming from previous questionnaires, and that these are the people who show symptoms of PTSD or depression but may not necessarily develop either issue, however, over time other people might develop them so the number remains a constant. He said he expects about six per cent of the 27,000 Canadian Forces personnel deployed to Afghanistan since 2002 to develop either PTSD, or depression, or both.

Retired captain Sean Bruyea, an advocate for improved veterans benefits, said the military has come “leaps and bounds” from where it was 10 years ago with respect to dealing with PTSD, but also said the problem still remains “once the uniform comes off,” because of the bureaucratic nature of Veteran Affairs and because there is no transition program or training for soldiers to leave the military. He said this can be a difficult process and for an individual with depression or PTSD the transition would be even more difficult.

Bill Wilkerson, CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, said the Canadian military has a “tremendously progressive program” for mental health services and PTSD, in particular, but Canadian society hasn’t caught up.

“It isn’t one party or one government. These are areas that have never been well-attended to in the training and development of health professionals or in the delivery of health services,” said Mr. Wilkerson.

The military has been working at changing their system and image over the last few years.

Last June, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk and Defence Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.) launched the Canadian Forces Mental Health Awareness Campaign, a national campaign to shed light on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“You’re strong, you’re well-trained, but guess what? We don’t show weakness particularly well and therein lies the problem,” said Gen. Natynczyk. “We’re tough and yet we won’t ask for help.”

Mr. MacKay said mental illness in the armed forces needs to be put into the light.

“Not all injuries are visible and we have to be very open about that, to come out of the shadows to embrace the treatment of these very real injuries,” he said of the launch of the ‘Be the Difference’ campaign.

The Hill Times