Mental health access for families of veterans still lacking, says new ombudsman

Veterans Affairs Canada hasn’t gone far enough in reversing restrictions on mental health counselling for the families of former soldiers, sailors and aircrew, the county’s new veterans ombudsman says in a hard-hitting report.

The federal government imposed constraints on access to mental health counselling for families of veterans almost a year ago. The policy shift was a response to a political embarrassment — the case of convicted killer Christopher Garnier, a son of a veteran who obtained taxpayer-funded post traumatic stress treatment.

While Veterans Affairs never formally amended the family care policy, it began using a much stricter interpretation of it — which had a direct impact on some veterans’ families.

“There was also a lack of transparency with respect to how these significant changes in interpretation were implemented,” Nishika Jardine, a retired colonel, wrote in her report released today, her first since being appointed veterans ombudsman last fall.

“The lack of clear communication caused confusion and frustration among some veterans and their families, especially since some family members only found out about the changes during their mental health appointments.”

Late last winter, CBC News documented several cases of families who had seen services reduced or halted because of the stricter interpretation of the policy. Federal officials responded by denying that families had been “cut off” from care.

But as of mid-March 2020 — just when the pandemic was getting started — the department had notified 133 families in writing that their counselling benefits were in danger of being discontinued.

Jardine’s investigation noted that the restrictions were revised, but not reversed.

‘I walk on eggshells’

It’s not good enough, she concluded.

“The [Office of the Veterans Ombudsman] believes this guideline continues to be too narrow and that families should receive better access to the mental health supports that they need,” says her report.

The investigation heard from some of the families directly affected by the service change and quoted them anonymously in the report.

“I barely survive. I walk on eggshells and try to smooth things over,” one unnamed spouse told ombudsman’s office investigators. 

“This is not fair to take away these kinds of services from our children. I will try to manage and deal with him the best I can. My kids should not be cut off from support. They did not ask for this, they did not ask for a broken father. All they often want is a dad who is not sick, a normal dad.”

The ombudsman was moved.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Jardine told CBC News. “It’s heartbreaking when you see the impact that can be experienced.”

While the majority of military families are resilient, she said, every family “is unique in their dynamics … We now understand how difficult it is to deal with mental health issues if you don’t have access to support and professional mental health services.”

The department’s policy ties family access to mental health treatment to the individual veteran and is meant to aid veterans themselves in their recovery.

The ombudsman argues that the families enduring the pressures of military life — the frequent moves, the isolation and the stress of knowing a loved one on deployment is in harm’s way — deserve their own unfettered access to taxpayer-funded treatment.

Stung by scandal

“In the OVO’s assessment, when a family member suffers from an illness or injury related to the unique conditions and challenges of military service, they should have access to mental health treatment, independent of the veteran’s treatment or rehabilitation plan,” said the report.

The department tightened its rules governing when families can receive subsidized counselling in the wake of the Garnier case. Stung by public criticism over that case, then-veterans minister Seamus O’Regan ordered a review and public servants began pursuing a stricter interpretation of the rules.

The current minister, Lawrence MacAulay, asked his officials to be as flexible as possible in deciding whether family members qualify.

In a written response to the report, Veterans Affairs gave little indication that it would accept the ombudsman’s recommendations — which, among other things, call for veterans families to be given separate legislative treatment so they can access services more smoothly.

“In short, while the existing Veterans Health Care Regulations do not provide the department the regulatory authority to offer funding for treatment benefits for a veteran’s family member in their own right, Veterans Affairs Canada will continue to offer alternative resources resources where it cannot provide mental health support and to be as flexible as possible where it can,” said the department’s response letter.

MacAulay did note, however, that his recently updated mandate letter from the prime minister instructs him to focus on mental health services for families and their primary caregivers.

He said he intends to launch a review of the issue but did not offer a timeline.

Jardine said her office can make recommendations but “it is up to politicians to hear, it’s up to the government to hear the distress that exists in these families.”

Jardine would not say whether she agrees with some veterans’ families who have claimed they were made to pay the price for bureaucratic overreaction to the Garnier case.

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