Referrals to Calgary Operational Stress Injury Clinic (OSI) have increased up to 25 per cent every year since it opened in 2006.
That increase is being hailed as positive news, indicating the stigma associated with getting treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is breaking down.
However, many veterans are still waiting too long to get help, mental health professionals say, and that waiting results in needless years of suffering makes the injury harder to treat.
“The average time we are seeing patients in this clinic would be at least a decade if not more,” said Dr. Stephen Boucher, a psychiatrist at the clinic located in Calgary’s Market Mall.
READ MORE: Invisible Wounds: Crisis in the military
“So patients are injured by trauma and they notice a change in their mental health and irritability and moodiness and sleep, but they soldier on.
“If I’m seeing a patient within the first five or 10 years since injury, there’s less likelihood that they will need to stay on an antidepressant medication after completion of treatment to stay well.”
Like many veterans who have witnessed horrors no one should ever see, Terry Kavanagh didn’t seek treatment for many years.
The-29-year old veteran with the 1 PPCLI was driving an ambulance in 2009 the day four of his fellow soldiers and reporter Michelle Lang were killed. Kavanagh’s convoy was supposed to be on that deadly route. He is still haunted by nightmares and guilt.
“Their convoy came down the road that we were supposed to initially go down and unfortunately everyone got killed,” Kavanagh said.
“I felt guilt that I had lost friends and I felt like I could’ve done more.”
The OSI clinic is a specialized mental health service offered to veterans, members of the Canadian Forces and eligible members of the RCMP and their families.
Boucher said they are able to treat patients more effectively than they could even five years ago.
“We have staff coming from different mental health disciplines who are working together collaboratively, sometimes using different language, but communicating well and strengthening the treatments we offer,” he said.
“So we are able now to treat patients who are more ill and I think we can treat them more quickly, more effectively than we could certainly five years ago.”
Boucher says PTSD has had a presence for at least 150 years, but it wasn’t until the First World War that big advances were made.
“In 1914, the British were getting 60,000 mental health casualties per battle and they did not understand what they were dealing with,” Boucher said.
“PTSD is an injury, it’s a complex injury. Our treatment seeks to stabilize their lives and reduce the symptoms and aid in recovery and repair.
“PTSD is probably one of the more treatable mental health conditions that I have been dealing with during my lengthy career.”
Kavanagh started attending the clinic in March, and said it’s helped him deal with buried emotions.
“I was in denial, or just didn’t think I needed help. It’s ingrained when you’re in the military to push through it,” Kavanagh said.
He still struggles with driving, wondering about hidden explosives, but his time at the clinic is giving him hope for the future.
“I don’t get as emotional as I used to thinking about events that happened oversees or friends that I lost. And I think in this process you’re not supposed to lose those memories, but I shouldn’t get lost in those memories.”
The clinic is funded through Veterans Affairs Canada and gets donations through the Calgary Health Trust and the Royal Canadian Legion.
There’s been a staff increase from four to 27 since 2006.