The military ombudsman says National Defence has not hired enough psychiatrists and other mental-health professionals to deal with a cresting tide of post-traumatic stress cases.
Pierre Daigle released a report Monday that challenges many of the reassurances the Harper government has given about the treatment of soldiers returning from the Afghan war.
He said there is a big gap between what the system can deliver and what it actually does for troops who've witnessed horrors overseas, and for their families.
"This gap is primarily the result of a chronic inability to achieve, or come close to achieving, the established manning level of the mental-health function," said the 99-page report, tabled Monday just as Parliament resumed after its summer recess.
It said this shortfall has a profound impact on the front line delivery of care, treatment and support to military members with post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress injuries and to their families.
In some instances, the system is operating with 15 to 22 per cent fewer caregivers than needed.
The Defence Department set a target of 447 mental-health professionals in a 2002 study and made sure the budget for those positions was protected. Yet it has never reached the target.
"In fact, as of mid-2012 this 447 mental-health, practitioner-supporter establishment has not been achieved and it is not expected to be in the foreseeable future," the report said.
After a dramatic surge in 2008-09, the system has sputtered along with between 350 and 378 staffers.
Mr. Daigle, in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, said his additional concern is the fact the un-met target was set before major combat operations in Afghanistan and may be inadequate to meet post-war challenges between now and 2015.
"So, we're very concerned this 447 has not taken into account the operational tempo of the last 10 years," he said.
Last spring, the county's top military commander acknowledged that the Forces were struggling to recruit mental-health professionals and appealed for civilians to volunteer to serve at remote military bases where they were needed.
General Walt Natynczyk issued that plea as the government was being hammered in the House of Commons for plans to cut mental-health research positions as part of its deficit-slashing drive – a proposal that was recently dropped with the arrival of new funding.
But the ombudsman's report noted that there are significant barriers and bureaucratic time delays, which often discourage professionals from applying to fill the holes.
In what may have been a pre-emptive response to the ombudsman, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced $11.4-million in funding last week to hire 51 additional psychiatrists, psychologists, mental-health nurses, social workers and addiction counsellors.
A spokesman repeated that commitment on Monday.
"Minister MacKay appreciates that the ombudsman focused attention on the health needs of serving personnel, " Jay Paxton said in an email. "Minister MacKay has said time and time again that care for ill and injured personnel is his No. 1 priority and is pleased to have recently committed a 30-per-cent funding increase for mental-health care professionals in order to provide the care CF members and their families need."
But the ombudsman's report also underscores the concern that while the government is pumping more money into the system, there is no effective way of evaluating if the cash makes a difference and whether the current structure is big enough to meet the need.
Mr. Daigle also expressed concern that with the end of the combat mission in Kandahar, the temptation will be to scale back support.
His recommends that Defence Department "maintain the current institutional focus" on PTSD and stress injuries and resist cuts, despite "corporate pressures, including renewed fiscal restraint."
The system of mental-health care in the military has been indirectly under the microscope at a public-interest hearing into the suicide of Corporal Stuart Langridge at CFB Edmonton, Alta., in March 2008.
There's been significant disagreement about whether the troubled soldier suffered from PTSD and what was done to address his drug and alcohol addictions.
The ombudsman noted that overall, the structure has evolved over the last decade from "an ad hoc system to one that is structured to deliver integrated" care and that it is "far superior to what existed in 2002."
He also praised Natynczyk, who encouraged discussion of stress injuries, which led to a "more informed and mature perspective on post-traumatic stress disorder" within the military.