Troops' mental health looked after: military
Top brass defend medical efforts as MacKay hammered over cuts
POSTMEDIA NEWS MAY 5, 2012
Skirting around questions about whether they had come under political pressure to come to the aid of Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Canadian Forces brass scrambled Friday to reassure the public that the military's medical system is taking care of troops with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues.
MacKay and the Conservative government came under fire in the Commons from opposition MPs after media revealed the Defence Department is cutting the jobs of medical professionals involved in suicide prevention and monitoring of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Canada's chief of the defence staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, made a brief appearance with other top brass to heap praise on MacKay and to welcome media scrutiny of the forces' treatment of mentally damaged warriors.
"It means that Canadians care about the needs and well-being of our sailors, soldiers and air men and women who have been injured," said the nation's top soldier. "I believe we have one of the best military health-care systems amongst our allies and are leaders in health care in this country. But we are far from perfect."
Natynczyk appealed to the nation's psychiatrists and psychologists to come to the aid of the military and volunteer to work at more remote bases such as Petawawa, Ont., and Gagetown, N.B., and then abruptly left the news conference before reporters were able to question him.
DND officials say Natynczyk added himself to the program at the last minute and had to return to his regular schedule.
The news conference was arranged as more questions were asked in the Commons Friday about the mental health treatment available to Canadian soldiers.
On Thursday, opposition MPs criticized MacKay for his lack of action on the issue.
Soldiers and the unions representing some DND health workers have come forward to news media with their concerns the system to take care of troops dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues is broken.
But officers at the news conference said the system is among the best in NATO, while praising the commitment of MacKay and the government.
Asked whether political pressure was behind the last-minute news conference, Rear-Admiral Andrew Smith, chief of military personnel, responded, "I think it's more importantly a clear indication to the degree which this issue - mental health care of the ill and injured - is taken seriously by the department and that includes our minister of national defence, who is a huge supporter of the troops."
Asked the question again, he added: "We are here to reaffirm the leadership of the Canadian Forces' support to men and women and we enjoy and have always enjoyed the support of our minister in that regard."
The officers, however, didn't deny that some workers have been notified that their jobs are being cut but said the situation was still being reviewed and no final decisions had been made.
Unions have been told that DND's Deployment Mental Health Research Section is being shut down, cutting four jobs, including those of suicide-prevention specialists. The employees also monitor PTSD rates and traumatic brain injury.
Eight of the 18 jobs in DND's epidemiology sec-tion will also be cut. Those include epidemiologists and researchers who analyze mental health issues such as depression, PTSD and suicide.
"Due to financial restraints, we are looking for ways and means to make our non-clinical support, our non-front line support, more efficient so we can focus our efforts where they need be - the medical care of our military members and their families," said Natynczyk.
The move comes on the heels of a new report indicating that suicides have increased in the Canadian Forces. At the same time the issues of suicide and PTSD are also under scrutiny at a military police complaints hearing in Ottawa.
That hearing is examining how the Canadian Forces dealt with the case of Cpl. Stuart Langridge, an Afghanistan veteran who killed himself.
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