With the number of veterans shrinking, there is an opportunity for the government to shift resources to the neglected issue of mental health.
The delicate reality of Canada’s aging veterans is an uncomfortable topic. It requires a marriage of compassion and pragmatism when addressing the changing role of the department that serves this decreasing population.
According to a Globe and Mail article, Veteran Affairs Canada is pondering a reduction in staff to trim costs, which have increased by $325 million over the last four years, making the department’s total operating budget $3.4 billion.
The suggestion to cut costs takes into account the fact that veterans of the two main wars in which Canadians served – the Second World War and the Korean War – are dying at a rate of 1,700 a month. Only 155,700 veterans remain out of a total of 1.1 million. According to VAC, the number of traditional clients the department serves is expected to decrease from 75,000 in 2010 to 54,000 in 2013.
It is at this point that the matter becomes uncomfortable – where bureaucratic and budgetary pressures meet the inalienable and unconditional duty of Canadians to attend to the needs of these individuals. As these veterans age and die, their need for services such as pensions and benefits shrinks, but the bureaucracy remains a living organism that requires funding to exist.
This is an opportunity to refine VAC’s mandate (which officially exists to “repay the nation’s debt of gratitude toward those whose legacy is the peace and security that we enjoy as Canadians”) and divert resources to an underserved and neglected segment of the Canadian Forces: those who suffer from mental illness as a result of their service.
There is a clear and pressing need to improve mental health services for our veterans, as identified in a 2002 report by former ombudsman Andre Marin. (This need was also detailed in a recent article in The Walrus magazine which illustrates the devastating toll taken on those who actively serve.)
Put in more concrete terms, an imminent and devastating problem for our veterans is post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects a growing, but unknown number of people. The New Veterans Affairs Charter, a work in progress that aims to incorporate the new generation of veterans, acknowledges PTSD as a disability.
An increased focus on mental health care would also be in keeping with the Veteran’s Bill of Rights, which suggests that veterans be treated with “respect, dignity, fairness and courtesy.” As it stands, VAC currently provides health benefits, a home care program, long-term care, and rehabilitation and re-establishment support to eligible veterans and others. It also provides a venue for veterans to appeal benefits claims. (Visit a breakdown of the 2010-2011 costs and estimates here.)
It is admittedly simplistic to suggest that shuffling money around and creating new mandates and missions is an easy solution. Nevertheless, in its 2010-2011 budget VAC acknowledged these transitioning duties, and Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn stated that the department is working with the Department of National Defence to improve mental health services, as well as putting more focus on recognizing modern-day veterans.
The need for a minimum standard of adequate mental health care has been well-documented. In 2002, a landmark report found that Canadian Forces members suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, social phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder at greater rates than the general population, and do not feel they can easily express a need for help, nor access it.
This problem will only be aggravated, both on an individual basis and in the general veteran population, as troops return from active duty in Afghanistan. It is difficult to determine exactly how many Canadians are currently in Afghanistan, but there are at least 1,000 soldiers, and likely hundreds more serving in other capacities.
It is clear that the government is beginning to address the mental health of our troops and veterans. But as VAC alters its focus, there is a real opportunity to retool the department’s mandate and incorporate it into the overall national effort to raise awareness of mental health issues and erase the associated stigma.
Indeed, Canada’s Mental Health Strategy, while an admirable effort, does not mention the well-being of troops and veterans. This is a chance for the federal government to take a leadership role in addressing the mental health of those who potentially make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.