Former Canadian Forces members: Report shows department ignored recommendations to treat mental health issues

Sarah Elliott, chair of Veterans Affairs Canada’s (VAC) Transformation Task Force, says in a report released Sunday that the department is ignoring their recommendations, which could save as much as $500 million over the next five years.

Specifically, Elliott, who is a veteran herself, says about 23,000 returning veterans who may be at high risk of mental illness because of not having mental health treatment are being denied the very health care they have needed.

The Task Force, which worked for two years to develop proposed changes to the health care system for veterans, was launched by the Conservatives in 2017, prior to the federal election that year. The task force included professors and researchers from across Canada.

Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VAC) does not recognize veterans’ PTSD diagnoses as a legitimate medical condition. Additionally, VAC has failed to properly address mental health issues to the veterans who have reported it, a lack of progress that “potentially implies that these services provided to veterans do not effectively help many,” Elliott said in the report.

Elliott says that this “suppresses the mental health needs of many veterans,” causing some to suffer from “terrible mental health problems including suicide,” as well as additional suffering to those who are ill.

One area the Task Force called for included “offer[ing] immediate access to any other urgent mental health professional that may be needed or recommended” even if the Veteran Affairs’ staff doctor “has not advised [the veteran] as to the urgent nature of his or her needs.” According to Elliott, VAC staff “would be provided with the opportunity to advocate for [the veteran] on the appropriate number of telephone or in-person appointments for consideration.”

According to Elliott, VAC staff will report to the president of the union to hear why any recommendations are not being implemented in the same “brief time frame,” as the Task Force recommended.

In the first six months of 2018, there were 7,700 medical appointments for mental health care for veterans, and only 5,300 were reported as being required because of a medical disability or an outstanding issue.

Elliott said that one of the factors for this was “the previously low number of applicants for veterans benefits”—such as G.I. Bill 24 and future Canadian veterans bill of rights.

In 2017, the government announced a new G.I. Bill of Rights to fix issues around access to benefits, as well as a new application process for people needing compensation. In February 2018, the government said a new application process is set to be completed in 2022.

“Today’s veterans need to be supported to assist them to seek mental health help,” Elliott told Canada’s CBC. “Veterans don’t ask for help. They ask for assistance from the system.”

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