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DND hires handful of mental-health professionals to combat suicides

OTTAWA - National Defence has hired seven mental-health workers who are among two dozen health professionals offered jobs after a series of suicides last fall, says the country's top military commander.

Gen. Tom Lawson told a defence conference Friday that the military is moving away from the notion that suffering in silence with mental illness and trauma is acceptable.

He related a story about reading his grandfather's journals from the Royal Flying Corps of the First World War, saying he was struck by how much soldiers of previous generations held things in.

"It was sobering to realize my grandfather came from a generation that, perhaps necessarily, buried their traumas and grief, and then to realize the military culture likely has had a lot of difficulty moving from that stoicism, even though we're almost 100 years downstream," Lawson said.

"But we are moving away from silent suffering, and we have come a long way in understanding how to help our members deal with these emotional burdens."

As many as nine soldiers have taken their lives since November in a series of tragedies that have rocked the military and shone a spotlight on post-traumatic stress, and on the services available to those returning from the Afghan war.

The Canadian Press reported last month that despite the injection of $11.4 million in 2012 and specific promises by the Harper government to hire more staff, the number of mental-health workers has remained static at roughly 380.

The department has never met its decade-old goal of having 450 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers on staff. Many defence insiders blame that on a cumbersome bureaucracy and a hiring freeze imposed by the government.

Lawson says the military is determined to treat trauma, depression and post-traumatic stress in the same way as physical injuries.

"As much as I like to stand up here today and say there is no longer a stigma with mental injuries, we know it still does exist," he said. "We understand we have to do more to reduce it."

In a speech at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., last week, Lawson said public attention and outrage, which erupted over the suicides last fall, may be contributing to the problem by having "brought a slight honour to the act of suicide."

He did not repeat that remark Friday during the Conference of Defence Associations annual forum, but did tell reporters afterward that the causes of suicide are complex, and often linked to issues that have little to do with military service.

"It will be a trigger of a breakdown of a relationship in many cases, sometimes addiction, sometimes financial," Lawson said. "What we're looking for is a link with PTSD, which seems intuitive, but in fact (it) isn't."

Lawson also said many transitioning members don't seem to understand what opportunities and prospects are awaiting them on release from the military.

But many soldiers who are given medical releases say their conditions often hinder their ability to find work in the civilian world.

In addition, the military ombudsman has said soldiers often find they don't qualify for benefits because Veterans Affairs uses different, more stringent criteria.

Lawson acknowledged the problem, but said officials have come a long away in making sure the safety net between the two departments is as tight as possible.

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