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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 doubl…


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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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    ‘Dignity and wisdom’: Chief justice praises Gascon after final high-court case

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    OTTAWA — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon received a standing ovation Thursday after hearing his final case on the high court.
    Gascon graciously thanked his family and colleagues, saying it is an immense privilege to be a judge.
    Last month, Gascon,…


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  • OTTAWA — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon received a standing ovation Thursday after hearing his final case on the high court.

    Gascon graciously thanked his family and colleagues, saying it is an immense privilege to be a judge.

    Last month, Gascon, 58, announced plans to retire for unspecified personal and family reasons.

    He said this week he has long struggled with anxiety and depression, and while he has generally been able to manage the illness, it recently led to a difficult episode.

    Gascon said he suffered a panic attack before he briefly went missing May 8. He profusely apologized for the uncharacteristic absence, citing the effects of his difficult career decision and a change in medication.

    In the crowded courtroom Thursday, Chief Justice Richard Wagner praised Gascon as an exceptional person.

    “Our esteemed colleague has served Canadians with dignity and wisdom,” Wagner said. “His commitment and friendship will be missed.”

    Justice Sheilah Martin shed tears.

    Gascon officially steps down Sept. 15 but will continue to have input into judgments flowing from cases he has heard, as long as they are released within six months of his retirement date.

    Judgments released after mid-March will note that Gascon had no input into the decision.

    “My work as a judge is far from complete,” he said. “I can assure you that I will continue.”

    The Canadian Press


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    What are panic attacks and what causes them? A look at the issue

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    TORONTO — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon, who briefly went missing in Ottawa last week, recently explained that his disappearance was caused by a panic attack. Here’s a look at the science and the stigma around the issue:
    WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?


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  • TORONTO — Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon, who briefly went missing in Ottawa last week, recently explained that his disappearance was caused by a panic attack. Here’s a look at the science and the stigma around the issue:

    WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?

    Andrew Jacobs, a psychologist with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, said panic attacks are “a sudden surge in anxiety or an uncomfortable feeling that go from zero to 60 within a few minutes.” Panic attacks are defined by a certain set of symptoms that can include increased heart rates, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating and a fear the person is dying. Jacobs said a person must experience four out of 13 symptoms as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

    WHAT CAUSES AN ATTACK?

    The Canadian Mental Health Association says panic attacks can be brought on by stress, fatigue or even excessive exercise. Jacobs says there are two types of panic attacks: cued and uncued. “Cued attacks happen as a result of someone already being very worried or fearful of something that can escalate into panic,” he said. “Uncued, which feels like the panic attacks come literally out of nowhere — it can even happen in the middle of sleep.” Gascon said in his statement that on the afternoon he went missing, he was affected by both a change in medication and a “heart-rending career decision.” He announced in September he plans to retire.

    HOW DOES A PERSON COPE WITH A PANIC ATTACK?

    There are many options for treating anxiety and panic attacks, including medication and counselling. One in particular is called cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. According to St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, CBT can include such methods as confronting a feared situation, as well as breathing techniques and replacing anxious thoughts with realistic ones. In Gascon’s case, he said his recent episode had been “taken care of and treated with the necessary medical support.” 

    CAN YOU RETURN TO WORK AFTER A PANIC ATTACK?

    Gascon said in his statement that he is “fully capable” of performing his duties as a judge, and Chief Justice Richard Wagner said in his own statement that Gascon continues to have his “full support and confidence.” Jordan Friesen, the national director of workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association, said it should be “relatively simple” for Gascon to return to work, given that panic attacks tend to be time-limited. “I think the question becomes, for him and for his employer, is to understand what to do if a situation like that happens again,” said Friesen. “My hope would be that if he’s experiencing symptoms of a panic attack again that he’s able to go and identify this to his employer and seek appropriate support — much like you would if you were at work and started feeling ill with the flu.”

    HOW HAVE ATTITUDES TOWARD MENTAL HEALTH IN THE WORKPLACE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

    Last year, the family of late Supreme Court justice Gerald Le Dain went public with the story of his departure from the court in 1988, saying then-chief justice Brian Dickson forced Le Dain out after he was hospitalized with depression. A former top aide to Dickson had previously written that the decision was made because the Supreme Court had a heavy load at the time and could not handle being short a judge, but Le Dain’s family told CBC he would have returned after a short time off to recuperate. In contrast to the way Le Dain was allegedly treated, the response to Gascon’s public statement has been overwhelmingly positive. Wagner said Gascon’s explanation took courage, while Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould thanked him for sharing his struggle. Doron Gold, a former lawyer who now works as a psychotherapist with Homewood Health, said the response illustrates the way attitudes have shifted — though he added there’s still much work to be done. “Things are so much better than they used to be, and they’re so far away from where they should be,” said Gold.

    Adam Burns, The Canadian Press


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