05/04/2012 03:55 EDT | Updated 07/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Military Mental Health Cuts: Canada's Defence Staff Say They Can Compensate

OTTAWA - The military says it can compensate for the potential loss of mental-health research positions by relying on studies carried out by allies and other federal departments.

Senior officials, including the chief of defence staff and the head of military personnel, are responding to criticism over proposed cuts at Defence and the potential impact on soldiers returning from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress.

Rear Admiral Andrew Smith, who oversees military staffing, says no decision has been made on eliminating research and analyst positions.

Those experts have been notified by their union that their jobs could be cut.

Smith and the Forces' top commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk say everything is being done to protect front-line health services.

Natynczyk says, however, there is a shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists at remote military bases across the country and he's appealing for volunteers to serve in such locations.

"The bottom line is that we want to improve the care we provide to our men and women. Any reductions or realignments we make are aimed at doing just that," the defence chief told a hastily arranged briefing Friday.

"Where the soldiers are; where their families are; that's where we want to put the care."

Two Ottawa-based civilian psychologists, who are treating roughly 40 soldiers from Petawawa, Ont., will soon begin travel back and forth instead of operating out of local office.

"It's fair to come back and look at the administration and management of the health-care system and have a critical review and analysis of it to look for efficiencies," said Smith. "That review continues."

Federal unions have been told the department’s Deployment Mental Health Research Section faces closure. The unit includes suicide-prevention specialists who also monitor traumatic stress rates and traumatic brain injury cases.

The epidemiology section is also losing up to 18 staff who research issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

"Whatever the outcome of the current review, we will retain a research and analytical capability," said Col. Jean-Robert Bernier, the military's deputy surgeon general.

"We also have various other methods that we've invested in over the years to assist us."

They can contract services, or rely on data and studies from either Veterans Affairs Canada, universities or NATO, he added.

The concern comes in the same week as National Defence said 20 soldiers died by suicide in 2011. That's up from 12 soldiers who took their own lives the year before.

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett pointed to the figures on Friday, asking how the Conservative government could justify slashing any mental-health positions.

The country's junior defence minister deflected the question by saying that the rate of suicides in the military remains constant and has not risen, despite the increase in the overall numbers.

Chris Alexander also said the suicide rates among those in uniform are well below that of the civilian population.

Like Natynczyk, he said the government is investing in front-line care.

"We have almost doubled the number of professional front-line health care workers," said Alexander.

"They will remain in place. We have the highest ratio of professional health-care workers to soldiers of any country."

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