11/23/2014 10:01 EST | Updated 01/23/2015 05:59 EST

Canadian Military Mental Health Programs To Get $200M Over 6 Years

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HALIFAX - The federal government has announced $200 million over six years to support mental health needs of military members, veterans and their families.

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces also announced Sunday that an additional $16.7 million in ongoing funds will be available to support forces members, veterans, and their families.

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino told a news conference in Halifax that some of the money will fund completely digitizing the health records of all serving personnel, investing in brain imaging technology and extending access to Military Family Resource Centres.

"We will continue to focus on reducing the administration burden on veterans and their families while improving frontline services and medical support," he said at HMC Dockyard.

Also announced Sunday was the construction of a new operational stress injury clinic, slated to open in Halifax in the fall of 2015.

"The clinic will bring high-quality specialized mental health services and support to veterans in the Halifax area," said Fantino. "We believe the new clinic will help over 1,200 veterans... over a six year period."

In addition to the clinic in Halifax, Veterans Affairs Canada will expand satellite services in nine locations throughout the country, which are funded by Veterans Affairs but are operated by provincial health authorities.

There are currently outpatient clinics in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, London, Ont., Ottawa, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., Quebec City, and Fredericton.

Rear-Admiral John Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, said the announcement of the clinic in Halifax came as a happy surprise.

"I heard today... for the first time of a clinic in Halifax. We're a catchment base for a very large reserve force of army, navy and air force in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick," said Newton after the press conference.

"To hear we're putting in a clinic in this area, that's pretty powerful... anchoring a facility on Halifax is key to the entire Maritimes."

The government also says there will be additional investments in research aimed at finding better treatments and faster recoveries for serving members and veterans with mental health conditions.

Among the areas of research that will be undertaken is looking at how forces members transition from military to civilian life, with an emphasis on those with service in Afghanistan.

The research will also look at the causes and prevention of veteran suicides, and ways to improve the recognition, diagnosis, treatment and well-being of veterans with mental health conditions.

Ottawa says the Canadian Forces will hire additional staff to help educate serving members and their families in managing their reactions to stress, and recognizing mental duress.

The announcement comes just days after veterans learned that the federal department responsible for their care and benefits was unable to spend upwards of $1.1 billion of its budget over seven years.

Like other departments unable to spend their appropriation within the budget year, Veterans Affairs was required to return its unspent funds to the treasury.

The Royal Canadian Legion wrote Fantino on Thursday, demanding a detailed accounting of which programs had lapsed funding and why.

The figures put before Parliament show the veterans department handed back a relatively small percentage of its budget in 2005-06, but shortly after the Conservatives were elected the figure spiked to 8.2 per cent of its allocation.

And by way of comparison, the previous year — the last full year of Paul Martin's government — the department handed back 3.98 per cent of its budget allocation.

Mike Blais, head of watchdog group Canadians Veterans Advocacy, said the measures announced Sunday would provide a "marginal benefit" to veterans but stop short of what is needed.

"This is seriously not enough. It's not enough resourcing, it's not enough effort put forward in accepting this obligation" to mental health.

An Auditor General's report on mental health services and benefits for veterans is due out Tuesday, and Blais said the funding roll-out was timed to get ahead of what is expected to be a scathing review.

"I think this is not an act of good faith — it's an act that they're responding to what's going to be a very unfavourable Auditor General's report," he said.

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