Veterans of Canada's Armed Forces who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses are being told they must wait several months before the federal government will pay for psychological counselling.
The delay means that former soldiers dealing with serious conditions related to their service, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, may not be able to afford to get the help they need. It also means those contemplating suicide may not know a trained mental-health professional who will be available when their pain reaches a breaking point.
A Globe and Mail investigation found that at least 62 soldiers and veterans have taken their lives after returning from the gruelling Afghanistan mission. Some of them were receiving medical treatment.
But Matthew Quist, a former captain who was in the regular forces until 2012 and then joined the reserves in 2013, questions how many others have been diagnosed with depression, like he was, then forced to wait until their claims were processed to find out if Veterans Affairs Canada would pay for the counselling they need.
The experience makes him concerned for the people he led when he was an officer, Mr. Quist said. "I had a corporal commit suicide when we got back from Afghanistan, and I wonder if he tried to get help but couldn't access it and then just gave up," he said in an interview from his home in Winnipeg.
Mr. Quist made it through Afghanistan physically unscathed, but he broke his T-12 vertebra during a training mission with the reserves last year. After complex surgery, he could walk but was unable to work out, drive or go for a run. And he was in constant pain.
"As things drag on and you realize the gravity of what happened, it hits you," he said. An anxiety attack that he said made him feel as though his whole body would explode convinced him to seek help. Mr. Quist said he went to see a clinical psychologist and was diagnosed with major depression.
"I just can't pay attention," he said. "I just get lost in thinking about something. It's frustrating, because it's just not myself. I know it's not me."
Mr. Quist has yet to be medically released from the reserves, but because he is a Class A reservist, his claim is processed by Veterans Affairs rather than the Canadian Forces. He called Veterans Affairs Canada to find out what treatments were available and was told he was ineligible for psychological counselling because his injury was physical, not mental.
"I was incredulous," Mr. Quist said. "I said, 'This is 2016. Knowing what we know about injuries and their effects on mental states, you're telling me that I have no [psychological] treatment benefits for depression relating to a physical injury.' And they said, 'Yeah.'"
One Veterans Affairs official suggested he start a new claim for his depression and said he would be eligible for some interim coverage while it was processed. But when Mr. Quist called the department to ask about the interim treatment after that second claim was launched, "I was told, again, that treatment is only authorized once your claim has been processed and you have become a VAC client for that condition."
It took more than four months for the department to agree to pay for Mr. Quist's psychological services.
"It's like $170 an appointment. I'm not poor," he said. "But I don't want to pay out of pocket because it's going to wind up being thousands of dollars."
A Veterans Affairs spokesman said in an e-mail that the department's standard is to adjudicate 80 per cent of all disability benefit applications within 112 days. But just 56 per cent of disability claims meet that standard, and the average time to process a claim, he said, is 123 days.
When asked why veterans who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses must wait months to get their treatments covered, the spokesman said the department "offers immediate and interim access to counselling through the VAC Assistance Service."
Veterans Affairs officials say that service provides up to 20 paid counselling sessions with a "mental health professional," which includes psychologists, social workers and trained educators.
But the department's website makes it clear the service is for addressing short-term problems. If long-term or more specialized help is needed, the website says, the veteran will be referred to a "specialist" in his or her community and have to bear the costs until their claims are approved.
Meanwhile, front-line workers at the department are telling veterans that no interim treatment is available.
In a 2014 report that found veterans were not getting timely access to mental-health care, the federal Auditor-General said some vets get the treatment they need during the processing period. For others, the report said, there was no evidence it was being provided.
Kevin Sweeney, a former master corporal who also served in Afghanistan, said it took almost five months, and numerous calls and e-mails, for his medical claims to be approved when he left the military last December. Because his pension was being processed at the same time, he was barely scraping by financially.
Before his discharge, Mr. Sweeney was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder and anxiety related to his overseas deployment. The doctors at the base in Kingston had referred him to a psychologist in the community, but once he left the military, the government would not pay for the services until it had completed his paperwork.
"The doctor I have right now said, 'Look, don't worry about it, I am covering it because I know that you need the therapy,'" Mr. Sweeney said.
She provided free counselling for five or six months. But he had more problems when the expensive medication he takes for his condition ran out and the department refused to pay.
"My wife has a head injury, so she's not able to work," Mr. Sweeney said. "I went to them [Veterans Affairs] and I told them: 'I've got depression. I am running out of my drugs. You know that I am having trouble trying to get my pension.' And the lady that I talked to turned around and said, 'You should phone Ottawa and tell them that they are holding up your medication.'"
Antoon Leenaars, a psychologist and consultant on suicide prevention in Windsor, Ont., who writes a blog about veterans, said the absence of counselling services during the processing time is dangerous.
"We have had incidents here where people have been begging for help," Dr. Leenaars said. The Department of National Defence is doing a much better job than Veterans Affairs in dealing with psychological issues, he said.
The accountability for the well-being of people who have served in the military does not stop the day they take off the uniform, Dr. Leenaars said. "We need to continue with the same kind of service that they get in the military."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the name of Chantal Gagnon was Chantal Mignon. This digital version has been corrected.