05/07/2012 12:12 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Real Soldiers Don't Get PTSD

2012-05-07-mentalhealth.jpgTurns out the Department of National Defence is eliminating the jobs of medical professionals involved in suicide prevention and monitoring post-traumatic stress disorders. Aren't these cuts a little short-sighted?

I was momentarily heartened on Friday when I heard that amidst the federal government's deep cuts was some trimming of the defense budget. A little balance, I thought. So far, the slashing of the civil service has fallen heavily on policy makers, statisticians and folks that run emergency oil spill offices.

My sense of relief lasted until the headline was over.

Turns out the Department of National Defence (DND) is eliminating the jobs of medical professionals involved in suicide prevention and monitoring post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). They are closing an Ottawa clinic serving these clients, and shutting DND's Deployment Mental Health Research Section, cutting specialists and epidemiologists who research and monitor PTSD rates, trauma and depression. What did I expect?

These cuts come shortly after the release of a department report on the increase of suicides in the Canadian Military, and in the midst of a military complaints hearing examining how the Forces dealt with the suicide of Afghanistan veteran Cpl. Stuart Langridge. In the U.S. since 2009 the suicide rate of veterans and soldiers exceeds the number that have died in active duty.

A press conference was thrown together and Canada's Chief of Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, responded to public criticism of the cuts with praise for Minister Peter MacKay, saying the government welcomes media scrutiny of the forces' treatment of mentally damaged warriors.

According to Senator Romeo Dallaire, who is moderately critical of the cuts, Canada has one of the best records in NATO for its treatment of soldiers with PTSD. Still, he argues that it's not good enough.

Smells a bit like the arguments hurled at striking students in Quebec to stop whining because they already have the cheapest education in North America. Perhaps the government figures there's wiggle room for cuts before we look as bad as our fellow NATO members.

Natyncyzk, using a blame-the-victim argument, told a Senate committee that despite the gold standard of recruitment and all of the screening techniques available, it is impossible to identify every vulnerable soldier. This implies it's not the traumatic experiences of being in places like Afghanistan, but the weakness of the men and women themselves that is to blame.

He justifies his cuts to research staff by arguing, "Due to financial restraints, we are looking for ways and means to make our non-clinical support, our non-front line support, more efficient so we can focus our efforts where they need be -- the medical care of our military members and their families."

"Due to financial restraints." Like "due to bad weather," it implies our fiscal situation is an act of God that befell the government, not due to a set of choices they made. Interesting also that the argument is made in tandem with significant cuts to precisely the health services they claim they are trying to protect. Or maybe, even more troubling, they don't consider PTSD and related mental health disorders to be medical at all.

The military is closing an Ottawa clinic for PTSD cases with no clear plan for patients being transferred to the 6,000 member base in Petawawa which has no psychologists and just one working psychiatrist. And she devotes only a quarter of her time to treating patients.

I don't get it. Aren't these cuts a little short-sighted? Clearly the Harper government plans to stay in the business of sending Canadian soldiers into dangerous situations to defend and build democracy. Wouldn't it serve us well to be prepared not only to deal with the psychological trauma that results, but to undertake scientific and social research to identify and reduce risk factors contributing to PTSD and other mental illnesses?

It's hard to not read the situation as federal government indifference toward traumatized soldiers who are no longer active contributors, but a burden to the military. Usually celebrated by Conservatives, our soldiers are of value only while in the field. Once damaged and home they are whiners -- much easier to ignore. If provincial health budgets, or no one at all, can be left to pick up the slack, why not save the money?

At the press conference Natynczyk did toss out a bone of hope to address the problem. He appealed to Canadian psychiatrists and psychologists to come help out the military and volunteer to work at more remote bases such as Petawawa, Ont., and Gagetown, N.B. Now there's a thoughtful strategy our vets can count on.

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