Why make soldiers choose between their pensions and their mental health?

Michael Robert McNeil
Mementos are displayed at the funeral for Warrant Office Michael Robert McNeil at the Truro Armouries in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

For members of Canada’s military, the choice to come forward about mental illness can be agonizing: Anyone deemed “unfit to serve” – due to mental illness, for example, if the Defence Department contends the illness’s roots predate military service – before having completed the minimum 10 years of service loses his or her pension.

Michael Blais, head of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, knows members of the military in the grips of mental illness who want to come forward and get help but worry it would spell the end of their careers and dash any hopes of an affordable retirement.

“A lot of guys want to stick around and get that 10 years in and they’re not coming forward with the mental wounds they’ve sustained … they think they can deal with it by themselves. And the cycle of despair starts,” he said.

“They’re sitting there dealing with that by themselves, and it’s festering away. … It’s very Catch-22.”

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GLOBAL NEWS INVESTIGATION: Invisible Wounds – Crisis in Canada’s military

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino has until Friday to respond to a committee report on a new Veterans’ Charter. The report, tabled in June, includes recommendations that severely disabled veterans be supported “for life,” that those benefits be transferable to a spouse and that no one be medically released until he or she is in a “stable” medical condition. It also notes that the military needs to do a more thorough job of ensuring a smooth health care transition from National Defence to Veterans’ Affairs.

The report also calls for better understanding of “operational stress injuries.”

Why make soldiers choose between their pensions and their mental health? - image

Delaying treatment can be bad news: Studies have shown that treating complex mental illnesses early yields a better prognosis.

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“Early intervention in PTSD makes a load of difference in terms of recovery outcomes,” said Donna Ferguson, a psychologist in the Work, Stress and Health program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“The longer you go, the more chronic the symptoms will get … it becomes more and more entrenched. It becomes harder to treat over time.”

And one needn’t look far to see the need for treatment: A Global News investigation found a crisis in Canada’s military as soldiers facing trauma and mental illness in the wake of their military service feel adrift or abandoned when it comes to help from the country they served. And even as the federal government boosts funds to commemorate decades-old battles, it’s cutting resources for living veterans.

(Note: Veterans Affairs contacted us Tuesday afternoon asking to comment on the above. They don’t contest these numbers, which are taken from government budget documents. Their statement is below)

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Mental illness in the Canadian Forces, as in any other population, can be destabilizing – and deadly. Master Corporal Denis Demers was found dead off base in Petawawa, Ont. earlier this month; sources have said he killed himself.

His death would be the latest in a recent spate of soldier suicides.

IN DEPTH: Soldier suicides

Blais says he urges people to come forward regardless, arguing the consequences of putting off treatment are far worse than losing a pension. But that can be a tough choice to make for people who’ve built their lives on a military career.

Last year, Master Corporal Kristian Wolowidnyk tried to kill himself on hearing he’d be discharged from the military because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino referred all questions to National Defence. A National Defence spokesperson emailed links to the department’s policies regarding benefits and pensions, including policy details on what happens to someone released for medical reasons.

“Every possible accommodation is made to ensure that soldiers are kept in the Canadian Armed Forces. Before any member is released, a transition plan is established which includes access to medical [services]. Members are only released when it is appropriate for both the member and their families to make the transition to civilian life,” National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson’s press secretary Johanna Quinney said in an email.
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“We continue working with the Chief of Military Personnel to ensure that members of the Canadian Armed Forces are not released until they are fully prepared. Our government has increased the annual health budget for the Forces by over $130 million which this includes a boost to the mental health services of $11.4 million.”

Ferguson couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Defence Department’s policies. But she’s familiar with the fear of coming forward about a mental illness, especially when it means telling one’s employer.

“There’s a fear that if you come and say something, you’re not as strong as people feel you should be. There’s this fear you’d be ostracized, that people will think you’re not going to be effective at your job, you won’t be respected in the same way,” she said.

“People will continue to work and try to function in their occupation as long as they can, and they will have these symptoms and it won’t be until something actually breaks down” that they seek help – or are forced to.

And while misconceptions remain – especially around what it takes to recover from these illnesses – understanding is generally better, Ferguson said.

“Some still really don’t get it. Some people still feel like, ‘What is this? It’s not a physical injury. Why can’t you work? What’s your problem?'”

But, she adds, “I think people are becoming a little bit more understanding and supportive of the diagnosis, and I think people are understanding the impact – people committing suicide, people not being able to function, people not being able to work. … They’re realizing that we need to do something.”

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Better understanding of mental illness is badly needed among the people assessing soldiers’ fitness to serve, Blais argues. But so is providing for them financially once they leave the military for good – even if it’s just a 10-year pension.

“There must be more compassion there. Dumping them out on the street’s not fulfilling the obligation.”

TIMELINE: Suicides in Canada’s military

Statement from Veterans Affairs spokesperson Ashlee Smith regarding decreased spending on veterans’ services, added 1:40 p.m. ET Sept. 30: 

“Benefits from Veterans Affairs such as monthly financial support, medicine, rehabilitation,  travel to and from medical appointments and university or college retraining are in no way impacted by commemoration activities that pay tribute to those who have served. In fact, benefits and services for Veterans have increased under our Government through an unprecedented investment of $4.7 billion new dollars since 2006.”

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