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Nicholson says DND reviewing further mental health improvements; mum on details

OTTAWA - Canada's military ombudsman and Opposition MPs are both asking why National Defence is just getting around to hiring urgently needed mental health professionals some 18 months after it promised to do so.

A lack of available psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and addiction counsellors has dogged the department for years, but a recent bout of military suicides — as many as 10 in the last two months — has thrust the shortfall into the spotlight.

"What will it take for people to show a greater sense of urgency?" asked Canadian Forces ombudsman Pierre Daigle, who blasted the government for failing to hire enough professionals in time to handle a mushrooming caseload.

"I know folks on the medical side; they want these people. What else do you need? If the minister says, 'I'm giving you the money to hire people' and you are still fiddling (with) the bureaucracy. I really don't understand it."

In the House of Commons, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make the suicide crisis a personal priority. Harper responded by repeating his plea for those who are struggling to come forward for help.

Soldiers and their families say that when they do, they sometimes have to wait for as long as two years for help.

Mental health services have been a priority for the department, but the government is also "reviewing whether further enhancements are needed," said Defence Minister Rob Nicholson. He did not elaborate.

"We do take the issue very seriously," Nicholson told the House.

Marie-Helene Brisson, a spokeswoman for National Defence, said on the weekend that the department is in the process of hiring as many 54 extra staff members. Brisson would not say when they might be available.

However, Daigle pointed out in a 2012 report that the military's medical branch has never reached its goal of 447 mental health workers and the latest statistics show the numbers have barely budged since the government promised action.

The department has just 388 mental health staff members across the country, nine more than in September 2012.

"We are witnessing an urgent and growing need for better access to mental health services for Canadian Forces members, but the hiring of mental health professionals has been stymied by internal red-tape and budget cuts," said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

Harris requested an emergency debate in the Commons to address the shortage, but was unable to get the necessary support.

"Under the Conservatives we are not meeting the needs of the military."

A series of defence sources told The Canadian Press over the weekend that the bottleneck is the result of a stifling bureaucratic process that creates a disincentive to hire staff.

Since a federal hiring freeze was imposed in 2010, the system has become even worse.

Funding that was earmarked to pay for the unfilled positions has been turned back to the department and eventually the federal treasury each year as surplus funds.

The benchmark of nearly 450 was established a dozen years ago, before Canada saw major combat in Kandahar, and Daigle said it's entirely possible that even more staff members and experts are now necessary.

Frustration is building within the military, said Daigle, who challenged the Harper government to deal with the bottleneck once and for all.

"It's really in the political arena," he said.

"You really need to put action to words. You've put money there, now show me — by the week, the month — how many people you've hired."

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