National Defence closer to hiring much-needed psychiatrists

A bureaucratic, budgetary turf war that has stymied the hiring of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals at National Defence may be finally coming to an end in the wake of a suicide crisis that’s gripped the military.

OTTAWA — A bureaucratic, budgetary turf war that has stymied the hiring of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals at National Defence may be finally coming to an end in the wake of a suicide crisis that’s gripped the military.

Eighteen months after the Harper government put up $11.4 million toward a chronic staff shortage, the department says it’s just now in process of hiring up to 54 individuals to fill a need first identified a decade ago when the country’s war in Afghanistan began to heat up.

And the department’s lingering inability to fill the desperately needed positions has the taint of deficit-fighting politics as much as it relates to a nation-wide dearth of mental health workers, say a series of defence sources intimately familiar the file.

Defence spokeswoman Marie-Helene Brisson would not say when the hiring process would be completed, nor how soon those staff might be available.

But a series of defence sources told The Canadian Press some long-standing obstacles may have been removed. A ceiling on the total number of staff has been increased and the downloading of hiring decisions closer to the front line are among allowances being made as the military struggles with a sweeping number of suicides.

Both opposition parties say the fact soldiers have had to take their lives to prompt the government to start moving on hiring is “deeply shocking.”

Both New Democrat MP Jack Harris and Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray say it’s unconscionable, especially in light of stories they’ve heard from soldiers and their families who sometimes wait between up to two years for access services like counselling.

A report by the Canadian Forces ombudsman, in the fall of 2012, underscored that the department had never reached its goal of employing 447 mental health workers, a benchmark established in 2003.

As of last month, there were only 388 positions filled. The number has barely moved since Pierre Daigle’s report and has actually remained constant since about 2008.

The question is: Why? Money has never been an issue.

Each of the positions has been fully funded as part of the baseline budget for the military’s medical branch since the early 2000’s. In fact, the Harper government’s injection of an additional $11.4 million — on top of a previous $98 million — left military officials in a quandary, said defence sources.

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