02/12/2014 06:00 EST | Updated 04/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Quebec soldiers with mental health issues have fastest access to care in Canada

When Stéphane Legendre came home early from his third tour in Afghanistan, he had no way of knowing how a sad turn of events in his life would deeply affect his mental health.

Master Cpl. Legendre had returned home early from his tour in 2009 because his father was dying.

Within a couple months of being home, his father passed away and his girlfriend broke up with him. Legendre, 35, was diagnosed with depression and put on medication in October 2009.

He saw nurses and social workers who specialized in mental health, but he was never treated by a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

Camille Martel, Legendre's mother, said staff at the Valcartier Health Centre should have taken action earlier.

The centre classified Legendre as a "priority" case three weeks after he complained about the lack of help.

Legendre ended up killing himself in November 2009 by taking 500 caplets of extra-strength acetaminophen.

“I never would have thought. Never,” Martel said.

Valcartier improves mental health services

Legendre’s tragic story is one of many involving the suicides of soldiers once they return home from tours of duty.

A rash of soldier suicides in late 2013 serves as a painful reminder to many families that mental health services are lacking at a number of military bases.

But there is a glimmer of hope at CFB Valcartier in Quebec. The military base there now has the shortest wait times in the country for soldiers seeking appointments with psychologists and psychiatrists.

This, after a report from 2011 that the average wait at CFB Valcartier was four times longer than the national average.

“I have to say we were really proud to say that we are one of the achieve those numbers,” said Maj. Daniel Dupuis, who has managed the health clinic at Valcartier since 2011.

Valcartier’s mental health clinic is also one of the first to adhere to national guidelines on wait times for soldiers to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Legendre’s suicide prompted the coroner to assert soldiers were waiting too long for mental health care, and to make recommendations to speed up access to care.

Health officials looked for help outside the base after the coroner’s report.

Base surgeon Maj. Valérie Lafortune invited 15 off-base psychologists to a two-day training session on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

She said that part of the training was to break stereotypes about what it is like to treat a soldier suffering from mental illnesses like PTSD.

“They were scared of the unknown. They didn't know if our patients would be maybe violent or not show up, or not be compliant about treatment. You know, when you've never done something, it's scary,” Lafortune said.

Now, 14 of the 15 psychologists invited to the base treat some military patients, and that’s making all the difference.

Wait times to see a psychiatrist or psychologist now fall between 22 and 29 days — down from four to six months.

While they wait, soldiers can see a doctor, nurse or social worker — and sometimes cases can be sped up.

“Each case is assessed on an individual basis and if there's a need to prioritize this assessment, it can be done,” said military psychologist Maj. Mathieu Bilodeau.

“We can see the patient faster...depending on the clinical picture for the patient.”