Feds playing fast and loose with veterans’ mental health

Published: Monday, 12/01/2014 12:00 am EST

We can be forgiven if we mistakenly believe that Christmas has finally arrived for Canadian veterans suffering psychological injuries. However, veterans will have to hold on to their Santa wish list for another 50 years. Ottawa’s mental health strategy looks more like a sleigh ride through a government public relations wonderland.

Last week, media outlets widely headlined $200-million from Ottawa towards mental health measures for veterans, serving members and their families. Let’s wipe away the political lip-gloss and talk about the facts.

The Government of Canada news release proclaims “an investment of approximately $200-million”  for mental health support. It is much more “approximate”  than headlines indicate. Government news backgrounders reveal that all $159.2-million is slated for a new mental health clinic in Halifax. However, sources inside the DND disclose that this amount is to be distributed between the Halifax clinic and “satellite services in nine locations throughout the country.”

Of the $159.2-million, $19.1-million is start-up costs over a six-year period. The remaining $140.1-million is to be allocated over the life of the program. This bureaucratic lingo translates into the remaining lifespan of any currently living veteran in those areas needing those services or 50 years.

The math adds up. We know this from a Veterans Affairs 2008 internal report analyzing the first six mental health clinics.

According to this report, it is likely the Halifax clinic will have 11 employees with an operating cost of about $1.6-million annually. Satellite services will have between one mental health worker travelling for a few days per week to the area concerned, up to perhaps two fulltime employees. This average of one mental health worker per satellite location represents another $1.6-million in annual operating costs. The total annual operating cost for Halifax and the satellite locations will be approximately $3.2-million. The $140.1-million would therefore last approximately 44 years. Add the six year start-up plan and we have $159.2-million spread over 50 years.

Considering the unwillingness of government to provide details, these numbers are a best-informed estimate. What we do know: it is unlikely these offices will be functioning before the next federal election. Halifax is slated to open in the fall of 2015.

Mental health tragedies have been widely reported by the media over the past four years. Veterans and families have been suffering them much longer. VAC identified in its 2008 report the need for an Atlantic clinic as well as in other locations. These locations will not be fully functioning until at least 2020. What is it about mental health emergencies that government fails to understand?

More electioneering was $15.8-million for a four-year pilot project to provide prospective releasing veterans and their families with access to just seven Military and Family Resource Centres (MFRC). The access is limited to a two-year window after leaving the military.

Struggling family members and veterans do not require yet another pilot or research project to know that family services of injured veterans are needed now. Supporting the family of the disabled is a lifelong commitment, not an arbitrary two years. This commitment has been legally hard-wired into the mandate of Veterans Affairs. Only the Government of Canada refuses to honour this to any respectable degree. In this announcement, not one family of a veteran currently released will have access to these programs. These are the families humiliatingly having to cry for help through the media when government would otherwise spurn them.

Why the short-sighted miserly approach for a government that effusively proclaims its love for veterans? Perhaps expressing admiration for veterans is alright, but allowing Ottawa to act upon that affection or provide help for veterans’ families is frowned upon. We need only remember Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino and loyal bureaucrats running from veteran spouse Jenny Migneault on national television as if she were stricken with a virulent infection.

The most repugnant aspect to send families to the MFRCs: they are not government agencies. The centres may have flexibility and goodwill where government agencies may not. However, such theoretical musings ignore the elephant in the room. MRFC’s are “incorporated, not-for-profit, third-party organizations.” They are not meaningfully accountable to any democratically-elected official or to the public, let alone to disabled veterans and their families.

This is a growing trend. The current government sloughs off the responsibility to care for the wounded and their families. Our struggling veterans and families are sent to contractors and charities or their care and/or private medical records are managed through internationally owned corporations.

Canadians do not don a uniform and pledge their lives to protect a nation, which plays fast and loose with the truth, let alone a game of hot potato with their lifelong treatment and care. As of yet, the Forces do not openly fight for corporations and not-for-profits. They fight for the government and people of Canada.

More election candy in the announcement was $6.64-million for research spread amongst DND, Veterans Affairs and likely, but not indicated in the news release, Statistics Canada. There are five areas of study, two of which require much input from StatCan. The $6.64-million is spread over six years for $1.1-million per year divided between three departments, or $367,000 annually per department. Currently,  VAC has about 11 employees in their research branch representing an annual expenditure of no more than $1.5-million. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs put over $1-billion into research.

With such ungenerous promises, it is unlikely that any of the research will be scientifically “groundbreaking” as Ottawa claims.

There are no substantive new initiatives in this mental health announcement. For those who are suffering, one of the first things a veteran will tell you is that one appointment for one hour per week fails the test. ‘What do I do for the remaining 167 hours? What do I do at 3 a.m. when my world shatters in a barrage of terror, pain, drunkenness, anxiety overload, my family leaving or just plain self-loathing? Who will be with me day-to-day as I try to remake my life? I gave 24 hours a day every day for 10, 15, 20 or 25 years in uniform and all I get is one hour per week from some newbie certified 20-something psychologist who doesn’t know the difference between a corporal and a tank?’

None of these mental health clinics can accommodate drop-ins, unlike in the States. Veterans may have to book their panic attacks, suicidal ideations, and substance abuse ahead of time.

How do we find the truth with a barrage of government propaganda? As comedian John Oliver tells us of deception, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”  I will be the first to tell you that Veterans Affairs bureaucracy can be paralytically boring. However, we must dig deeper and call government on every claim it makes to care for veterans and their families, especially in their hour of greatest need.

Most, if not all government announcements on veterans have proven to be spurious if not thoroughly mendacious. Publishing these claims unchallenged is a disservice to those who served us in our greatest need.

Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and a frequent commentator on government, military, and veterans’ issues.


The Hill Times

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