Demand outstripping resources at mental-health clinics for veterans: documents

OTTAWA — Demand for service has been outstripping the resources available to a network of mental-health clinics set up across the country to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological trauma, an internal government report suggests.

As a result, the report warns, many veterans in places like Quebec City, Vancouver and Edmonton have been forced to wait longer before seeing a mental-health specialist or psychiatrist, despite the importance of timely intervention.

The wait-time challenge is separate from the backlog of 29,000 requests for disability benefits at Veterans Affairs Canada, and follows a previous warning from the federal auditor general about former soldiers facing long waits for badly needed mental-health services.

Veterans Affairs acknowledged Monday the challenges posed by mental-health services, which it hopes to address by hiring more staff, expanding existing clinics and opening new satellite offices.

“In cases where clients require urgent psychiatric expertise,” added department spokesman Marc Lescoutre, “they are prioritized to ensure timely access to treatment.”

But the report also says Veterans Affairs is reviewing its own standards and could accept longer wait times as the norm, even though “shorter delays minimize client distress and are critical to optimizing positive mental health outcomes.”

That has raised alarm bells for at least one veterans’ advocate, who says the answer isn’t making veterans wait longer to access services.

“There is a need that exists across the country for OSI support, and we feel it too,” said Scott Maxwell of Wounded Warriors Canada, which offers various mental-health programs such as service dogs to veterans.

“But at the end of the day, everybody wants to see veterans have access to the OSI support they deserve and need. That’s got to be the goal.”

The internal report, obtained through the Access to Information Act, was produced in January and examined performance at 10 of the department’s Operational Stress Injury (OSI) clinics during 2016-17, the most recent year for which data was available.

First established in 2002, the clinics are now located in most major cities across Canada and include a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other specialized mental-health professionals.

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