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More than 6,700 veterans from Afghan war receiving federal assistance for PTSD

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  • OTTAWA — Canada’s war in Afghanistan ended five years ago but the price of that effort continues to grow.

    Newly revealed figures show the number of veterans from the war in Afghanistan receiving federal support for mental-health conditions nearly doubled between March 2014 and March 2018.

    The figures are in a report obtained from Veterans Affairs Canada through access-to-information legislation and underscore the enduring toll the war has taken on the mental health of many military members who served there. They also highlight the importance of adequate mental-health services for veterans, which successive federal governments have sought to address over the years with mixed results.

    The report was provided to former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in January upon her appointment as veterans-affairs minister, a post she held for only a few weeks before resigning amid the SNC-Lavalin affair.

    According to the document, more than 6,700 military members who served in Afghanistan received disability benefits for mental-health conditions in March 2018 — an increase of nearly 3,200 from the same month in 2014.

    In both cases, the vast majority of those receiving benefits for mental conditions were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder “directly related to their service in Afghanistan,” according to the report.

    In fact, PTSD was found to have been the top medical diagnosis for Afghan war veterans applying for assistance, as compared to hearing loss and ringing in the ears for service members who had not deployed to Afghanistan.

    More than 40,000 Canadians served in the 13-year Afghanistan mission, which began with fighting the Taliban after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and progressed to trying to stabilize and rebuild the war-torn country.

    That means nearly 17 per cent of all Canadian military personnel who deployed to Afghanistan have received federal assistance for psychological trauma sustained during the war.

    Successive federal governments have been criticized for years over the support provided to such veterans, with concerns raised about financial assistance and long wait times for mental-health services.

    Veterans Affairs Canada recently revealed nearly 40,000 veterans were waiting at the end of November to hear if their applications for financial assistance would be approved, 11,000 more than the previous year.

    And more than one-third of them had been in the queue longer than 16 weeks, which was also an increase and a sign that veterans were waiting ever longer to find out whether they were entitled to assistance.

    While Veterans Affairs did not say how many of those applications related to psychological injuries, an internal report obtained by The Canadian Press last year found demand for mental-health services routinely outstripped available resources.

    The federal auditor general has also reported on long wait times for such services.

    Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s spokesman Alex Wellstead said there has been an overall increase in the number of former service members who have “put trust in their government and come forward to get help.”

    And while he acknowledged that “there is more work to do,” Wellstead said the government is spending billions of dollars on new supports and services as well as additional staff to ensure veterans get the help they need.

    The newly released report shows the officials approved 96 per cent of the 2,453 applications for assistance from veterans with PTSD in 2017-18, whereas the approval rates for many other medical conditions were between 75 and 85 per cent.

    At the same time, Wellstead noted the department recently established a partnership with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre to research psychological trauma and provide better advice and support to health-care professionals.

    “When it comes to mental-health supports, we work with over 4,000 mental health professionals across the country to ensure veterans get the help that they need,” he said in an email.

    “As well, we have hired over 700 new staff to replace the ones the previous government fired, which is helping the processing times. … There is more work to do, but we’re going to continue to do the important work that Canadians expect.”

    Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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    Healthy eating obsession can be a sign of mental-health struggles: study

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  • TORONTO — While we should all strive for a balanced diet, York University researchers say the extreme pursuit of healthy eating can be a sign of mental-health struggles.

    Jennifer Mills, an associate professor in York’s psychology department, co-wrote a recent paper on orthorexia nervosa, which she describes as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, published in the journal Appetite.

    In reviewing academic literature on the subject, the authors found that people with a history of eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, perfectionism and other psychological and behavioural tendencies were at higher risk of developing orthorexia.

    “There is nothing wrong with healthy eating. Healthy eating is something we should all aspire to,” Mills said in an interview. “But (we need) to be aware that mental-health difficulties can manifest through food.”

    Orthorexia has not been recognized in the standard manual psychiatrists use to diagnose mental disorders, and the York study found research on the subject is limited.

    But as so-called clean diets have picked up steam, Mills said there’s been growing interest in medical and research circles about the social and psychological side-effects of a “pathological” preoccupation with healthy eating.

    While there’s overlap between the risk factors for orthorexia and certain eating disorders — such as poor body image, a drive for thinness and dieting — Mills said the conditions differ in key ways, particularly their motivations.

    People with a restrictive eating disorder like anorexia will typically reduce their food intake in order to reach a low body weight or change their appearance. But for those with orthorexia, Mills said the focus on food is about quality rather than quantity.

    Many people with orthorexia are proud of their bodies, she said, but are decidedly picky about what they put in them.

    This often involves eliminating certain types of food from their diets, such as sugar, saturated fat, gluten, animal products, artificial flavours and preservatives.

    For some, she said, the list of forbidden foods can grow so long that their diet may be lacking in essential nutrients, which in severe cases can lead to health hazards such as anaemia, vitamin deficiencies or excessive weight loss.

    But Mills said one of the reasons orthorexia tends to go overlooked, including by medical professionals, is that many people with the condition are physically healthy, even though they may be suffering psychologically.

    “When people go to their doctors and say, ‘I eat really healthy,’ the most typical response they’ll get is, ‘That’s great… Keep doing what you’re doing,'” said Mills.

    “But they may be struggling more privately with just this sense that they’re starting to lose control, that this is actually taking away from their life.”

    For individuals with orthorexia, eating foods that conflict with their diets is likely to cause extreme guilt or anxiety, said Mills. This distress is usually bound up in perceived risks of disease or physical impairment. But in treating their bodies as temples of health, some may lose sight of their mental welfare, she said.

    They may spend a lot of time and money planning and preparing meals, and can find it difficult to eat food made by others, Mills said.

    Some strict dieters find these sacrifices are worth it given the health benefits, Mills acknowledged. But people with orthorexia may feel their fixation on food is so all-consuming that it interferes with their work, family and social activities, she said.

    “When we’re extremely stressed or overwhelmed, we look for ways of coping. And for some people, having very, very tight control over their eating is a way for them to feel like they’re in control, but then the irony is that they’re not,” she said.

    “Being healthy mentally means having flexibility, and having time and mental space freed up for other kinds of things, and not having your world revolve around food.”

    Mills said one of her research team’s most surprising findings was that orthorexia occurs in relatively equal rates between men and women. This suggests the condition may be less like an eating disorder, which disproportionately affect women and girls, and more like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which are similarly prevalent across genders, she said.

    She said diagnosing orthorexia can be slippery, because it isn’t defined by specific eating habits, but rather, a pattern of problematic thoughts and behaviours that detract from a person’s quality of life.

    Mills hopes the study increases awareness about orthorexia, a condition she believes is on the rise, fuelled by a culture that prizes healthy eating and wellness among its ultimate virtues.

    “It’s all around us: messages about how we should be doing better; we should be eating better; we should be constantly striving to improve ourselves,” she said.

    “I think it has a way of encouraging black-and-white thinking about food … and (that) can make people feel worse about themselves.”

    Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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    Ontario researchers invent way to store vaccines at higher temperatures

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  • Ontario researchers say they’ve come up with a simple way to store vaccines at higher temperatures for weeks at a time, potentially solving a major problem in the fight against preventable diseases around the world.

    The cheap technology from the team at McMaster University involves the use of a sugary gel that allows for easier, longer shipments of vaccines that typically need to be consistently stored at cold temperatures.

    “If we can make vaccines easier and more accessible through technology, then we can save a lot of lives,” said Vincent Leung, a chemical engineering professor and the lead author of the study that was published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

    Most vaccines require the “cold chain,” an uninterrupted refrigerated supply chain where they’re stored at temperatures between 2 C and 8 C at all times. Otherwise, the effectiveness of vaccines can be greatly affected, the study notes.

    Leung worked for four years on the project as part of his doctoral research and had help from other disciplines, including biochemists and immunologists, he said.

    The solution the researchers devised is simple.

    McMaster chemical engineers had previously created a sugary gel for use in various applications, including an edible coating that can prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.

    The research team mixed two sugars — pullulan and trehalose — with the vaccines and let them dry, either by air, or vacuum to speed up the process. The gel seals in the vaccine, which can later be reconstituted with water by clinicians in the field and given to patients.

    “It’s easier to think of Listerine breath strips because that’s the main material,” Leung explained. “It will form a film like that, then (is) put into a vial for deployment.”

    For the study, the research team stored mixtures of the sugary gel and numerous vaccine types at various temperatures for different lengths of time and then tested the vaccines.

    They found, for example, that “enveloped DNA vaccines” that usually require consistent cold storage, such as the herpes simplex virus type 2 vaccine, retained their efficacy for at least two months of storage at 40 C with the use of the sugary gel. The team also showed the inactivated influenza vaccine remained effective after three months of storage at 40 C.

    “This can really improve deployment and give easier access to those that don’t have refrigeration or access to electricity,” Leung said.

    The fact that the dried gel vaccine can easily be reconstituted by clinicians in the field could make the storage and transportation method invaluable in certain situations, such as the delivery of Ebola vaccines in remote areas of Africa.

    “Part of our goal was to have a very simple and cost-effective solution to address this accessibility issue for vaccines,” Leung said.

    The research team is now looking at partnerships and more funding to further develop the technology, and is also going through the proper regulatory procedures to be approved by the likes of Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    “The good thing is the sugars we’re using are already used in the food and drug industry and approved by FDA and Health Canada,” Leung said. “On that end, it should not be as hard to get it approved.”

    Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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