DND struggles to fill mental health positions nine months after suicide crisis

Almost nine months after promising to make the hiring of mental health staff a priority for the Canadian Forces, 40 positions — nearly 10 per cent of the military’s mental health workforce — remain vacant across the country, according to new figures released by National Defence.

OTTAWA — Almost nine months after promising to make the hiring of mental health staff a priority for the Canadian Forces, 40 positions — nearly 10 per cent of the military’s mental health workforce — remain vacant across the country, according to new figures released by National Defence.

The information comes as a series of emails show the military was scrambling prior to the last federal budget to avoid further cuts in its medical branch, all at a time when several soldiers took their own lives and some 35 others tried to do the same.

The pledge to meet a long-established benchmark of 454 psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and addiction counsellors — both civilian and military — was made at the height of a series of suicides last winter.

Thirty-two of the vacant positions are civil service jobs, which have proven the toughest to fill.

No one in the administration has been idle, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson insisted Tuesday during question period in the House of Commons.

“This has become a priority for this government,” Nicholson said in response to a question about a published report showing there have been more military suicides since 2002 than there were combat casualties in Afghanistan.

“I’ve indicated we’ve increased our health care spending. We’ve increased the number of mental health care workers. And I can tell this House that, unlike under the previous administration, this will be a priority for this government.”

But up until the recent series of suicides, there had seemed to be little sense of urgency.

A budgetary and bureaucratic turf war brought on by the Harper government’s hiring freeze prevented the Canadian Forces Health Services from filling jobs, even though $11.4-million was injected into the system in 2012 to make it happen.

In testimony last spring before a Commons committee, one federal official said certain obstacles, such as a paltry relocation allowance, had been rectified and removed.

Since January, 54 mental health staff have been hired and officials said they were “proactively” searching to fill the rest.

But an email exchange between the military’s chief of personnel and the department’s deputy minister shows that, even in the midst of the suicide crisis, the military was being told to make budgetary room for the new hires.

“During our meeting last week, I mentioned the potential cuts to (Health Services) primary care, associated with our budget issues in (2014/15) and longer,” Maj.-Gen. David Millar wrote on Jan. 12, 2014, in a memo obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

“It is important to note that cuts to primary care have a direct impact on (mental health) care as primary care provides the front end and the back end, with (mental health) care providing the specialist requirement.

“Therefore augmenting (mental health) care while decreasing primary care will be contrary to what we are trying to achieve.”

National Defence was asked recently whether the last budget imposed any reductions to primary care or staff.

“There were no cuts made to the primary care program budget as it would have had too great of an impact on the health care of (Canadian Armed Forces) members,” the department responded in an email.

“The military health care program continues to be adequately funded by DND through a combination of baseline funding and, when required, in-year funding adjustments.”

Also despite the government’s assurances, wait times for initial assessments at Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centres have been creeping up at four of the seven clinics across the country.

For example, at Valcartier, Que., the wait for routine, non-urgent assessments sat at 102 days in July, up from an average of 43 days in the spring. It’s almost as bad in Petawawa, Ont., where the wait is 78 days.

Only in Esquimalt, B.C., Gagetown, N.B., and Halifax have the wait times declined.

Cases are supposed to seen within 28 days. Officials said urgent cases are dealt with quickly, sometimes as “soon as the same day.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Lyn Radford, 2019 Canada Winter Games board chair, was named 2020 Sport Event Volunteer of the Year at the Prestige Awards. (File photo by Advocate staff)
WATCH: Lyn Radford wins award for volunteer efforts

The board chair of the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Red Deer dips below 300 active COVID-19 cases

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Red Deer continued to drop… Continue reading

A candlelight vigil will be held in Red Deer on Thursday to honour the 350-plus people killed in the Easter bombing attack in Sri Lanka. Contributed photo
Candlelight vigil planned for deaths linked to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak

A candlelight vigil is being planned for those who died due to… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Jaxsen Wiebe battles Calgary Hitmen forward Cael Zimmerman for a loose puck when the two teams squared off in February last season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Calgary Hitmen shutout Red Deer Rebels

Rebels name centre Jayden Grubbe team captain ahead of Friday’s game

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
WATCH: Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Funeral for Walter Gretzky to be held Saturday in home town of Brantford, Ont.

The funeral for hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s father Walter will take place… Continue reading

A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building is shown in Ottawa on May 14, 2013. A newly released audit report shows that difficulties with the judicial warrant process at Canada's spy agency — an issue that made headlines last summer — stretch back at least nine years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Spy warrant shortcomings stretch back almost a decade, newly released audit shows

OTTAWA — A newly released audit report shows that difficulties with the… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday night’s Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the estimated $29 million… Continue reading

A trial countdown sign marks the days at George Floyd Square, March 4, 2021, in Minneapolis. Ten months after police officers brushed off George Floyd's moans for help on the street outside a south Minneapolis grocery, the square remains a makeshift memorial for Floyd who died at the hand of police making an arrest. The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will begin with jury selection on March 8. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Officer’s trial could reopen intersection where Floyd died

MINNEAPOLIS — During a group’s recent meeting at the now-vacant Speedway gas… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2020 file photo Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell calls for an end to violence in the city during a news conference a day after a demonstrator was shot and killed in downtown Portland. Amid protests following the police killing of George Floyd last year Portland dissolved a special police unit designed to focus on gun violence. Critics say the squad unfairly targeted Black people, but gun violence and homicides have since spiked in Oregon's largest city, and some say disbanding the 35-officer unit was a mistake. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP, File)
As violence surges, some question Portland axing police unit

PORTLAND, Ore. — Elmer Yarborough got a terrifying call from his sister:… Continue reading

Harley Hay
Harley Hay: Just don’t call it cod liver oil

Many people swear that a daily dose of various vitamins is an… Continue reading

Email editor@auburn-reporter.com
Letter: Preserving green spaces in Red Deer

The Advocate published an article Feb. 11 about Sunnybrook residents concerned about… Continue reading

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Most Read