Family mental health support

The Veterans Ombudsperson has urged Veterans Affairs Canada to further reduce restrictions on mental health support for veterans’ families.

“We believe that family members of veterans deserve access to funded mental health treatment when their own need is connected to military service, of a family member,” Veterans Ombudsperson Nishika Jardine said while presenting a report on the issue to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACVA) on Feb. 17. 

Historically, family members were granted access to mental health treatment when it is  directly connected to achieving a positive outcome for the veteran in treatment. If the veteran wasn’t in treatment, the family had no access. 

Help for family members is generally limited to 25 sessions a year, meaning families then have to pay for services or face provincial health systems’ long waiting lists.

“It is unfair for family members to be denied access to mental health treatment for illness or injury related to the unique conditions and challenges of military service,” reads the report. 

The report recommends that families be given access to government-funded mental health treatment for their illnesses related to the military service of a family member. 

Meanwhile, it recommends flexibility in addressing families’ urgent mental health needs, including increasing the number of treatment sessions and finding ways to relieve families’ financial burden for treatment. 

It suggests that VAC conduct analysis to identify barriers for certain groups to get the mental health care they need. 

The Royal Canadian Legion supports all of the report’s recommendations.

“We ask Veterans Affairs Canada to push for legislative and financial changes to ensure that family members, including former spouses, survivors and dependent children, can access federally funded mental health care when their illness is related to the conditions of a veteran’s service,” said Dominion President Tom Irvine.

“This should happen whether or not the veteran is in treatment,” Irvine added, noting family members are a crucial part of the support system for serving members and veterans. 

VAC began strictly interpreting rules around provision of mental health treatment to families following public outcry after it was revealed a convicted killer, the son of a veteran, received publicly-funded treatment for post-traumatic stress. 

This shift was not clearly communicated to all veterans’ families, some of whom found out about it only when they showed up for their appointments. 

VAC’s written response said the department does not have regulatory authority to fund treatment for families in their own right, but it will continue to offer alternative resources.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay said he has asked staff to be flexible in determining whether family members qualify for government-supported treatment. 

Reviewing mental health programs and services was the first priority set out in the minister’s mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in January. It instructs him to “review mental health programs and services to ensure veterans, their families and their primary caregivers receive the best possible mental health supports, including timely access to service.” 

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