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Through training and research, U of T seeks to improve mental health outcomes for Canada's veterans

A 2018 report by the department of psychiatry in U of T's Temerty Faculty of Medicine found that most clinicians are unfamiliar with military culture and lack experience treating trauma-related conditions (photo by Blue Mountain Images/Getty Images)

Championing veterans’ greater access to quality mental health care is a key mission for Ryan Dermody, president of Norcan Petroleum Group and retired member of the Royal Navy.

“I’ve seen, firsthand, what happens when veterans living with mental health conditions fail to get the help they need,” says Dermody. “Governments and other organizations have been doing important work in this area. Yet, there are still many times when individuals slip through the cracks, often with tragic outcomes. We have to do better.”  

So, Dermody, who also serves as a member of the University of Toronto’s department of psychiatry volunteer campaign cabinet, began asking what the department was doing to help address this challenge.

“Ryan’s question was an eye-opener,” says Professor Benoit Mulsant, Labatt Family Chair of the department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. “We pride ourselves on our department’s size and broad scope. And yet, we realized we were not doing enough in the specific area of veteran mental health.” 

In 2018, the department commissioned a study to explore how to augment current treatments and supports for Canadian veterans with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

“We don’t want to duplicate existing programs,” says Mulsant. “The study was commissioned to determine if there was a role we can play, given our expertise in care, education and research, to add to these efforts in a strategic way.”  

The resulting 76-page report identified several key gaps in the current state of veterans’ psychiatric care. The most glaring: Most clinicians practising in Canada are unfamiliar with military culture and lack experience treating trauma-related conditions in veterans.

“As a university that trains more than a quarter of the country’s psychiatrists, we feel a particular responsibility to help address this issue,” says Mulsant. “One way would be through new fellowships in veteran mental health that would provide new psychiatry leaders with targeted training in this highly-specialized field.” 

The study also identified a need to advance research into conditions for which veterans are at particularly high risk such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, as well as for further collaboration between the many stakeholders already working to support veteran mental health – opportunities Mulsant sees as aligning with U of T’s strengths and expertise.

“We are embarking on this journey without yet knowing all the answers, but my colleagues and I are confident that we can contribute in a positive way to the wellbeing of Canadian veterans,” says Mulsant. “Our next step will be consulting with veterans and veterans’ organizations to co-create solutions that will leverage our strengths. We plan to create an advisory committee that will guide us and ensure that our programming is veteran-centric and integrative.”

“We always welcome initiatives across the country that seek to improve mental health outcomes for our Veterans,” says Lawrence MacAulay, Canada’s minister of veterans affairs and associate minister of national defence. “Academic institutions like the University of Toronto are important collaborators in driving health innovation.”

Early lead donors, including National Bank and Fondation Famille Vachon, have already stepped forward in support of the department’s efforts. A portion of their support will fund a pilot training opportunity for junior psychiatrists from across Canada to train at U of T. 

“We’re thrilled to be supporting U of T’s department of psychiatry’s work in the area of veteran mental health,” says Louis Vachon, president and chief executive officer of National Bank and honorary lieutenant-colonel of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. “Members of the military serve their communities with selfless courage, skill and unwavering dedication. We owe it to our veterans to do all we can to ensure their wellbeing.”

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