Veterans Affairs standing by level of support it provides former soldiers

Phone line is front line in helping veterans

OTTAWA — Canada’s Veterans Affairs Department is standing by the support and assistance it provides to former soldiers in distress — a subject of controversy in the wake of a murder-suicide involving a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

RCMP confirmed Friday that Lionel Desmond shot his wife, their 10-year-old daughter and his mother before turning the gun on himself in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. The four bodies were discovered Tuesday.

Family members say Desmond, who was released from the military in July 2015, was diagnosed with PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan in 2007. Veterans Affairs has said it cannot comment on the case, citing privacy laws.

But officials say veterans who need immediate help can use a toll-free number to speak to a clinician about their troubles and determine what assistance is needed. The line, staffed around the clock, received more than 1,100 calls in 2015-16.

“Anyone in the country, or any family member, can call,” Veterans Affairs chief psychiatrist Dr. Alexandra Heder told The Canadian Press in an interview.

“Every clinician across Canada who has a job like this on a help line, they are trained to do that kind of assessment first and then take steps if needed.”

For non-emergencies, the clinician can make an appointment with the veteran’s case manager, one of Veterans Affairs Canada’s many operational stress injury clinics, or one of 4,000 private mental-health providers registered with the department. Appointments take three to five business days.

If the veteran is in crisis, they will be contacted within 24 hours for an appointment. If there is a threat to the veteran or their family, local authorities are contacted.

“If the clinician determined that there was an immediate risk for the person, they could call the police, they could call 911 for ambulance services,” said Dr. Cyd Courchesne, the department’s chief medical officer.

“It’s dependent on the situation, but that always remains the option.”

That isn’t good enough, said Peter Stoffer, a former NDP MP and longtime advocate for veterans, who noted family members said Desmond was turned away prior to the shooting after trying to get help at a local hospital.

“If you call 911, what are they going to tell you?” asked Stoffer. “They’re going to come to you and take you somewhere. But if somewhere is full, what do you do then?”

Stoffer said additional measures need to be put in place, such as making it easier for vets to contact case managers, which is what a House of Commons committee recommended last month.

He said hospitals should routinely ask if someone has served with the military, and the department should establish better contacts with hospitals and other local health facilities to ensure veterans in distress aren’t turned away.

“Somebody in the hospital could have called the various numbers for him, and then seek out the assistance that he required,” Stoffer said.

“If it’s not necessarily in that area, then there should have been some availability for him somewhere. And you would have assumed by identifying him as a veteran, that they would have immediately called the appropriate numbers and assist him in that way.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press