OTTAWA — Canada’s top military officer is urging his troops to reach out for help if it’s required, as the use of mental-health services for military personnel has reached an all-time low.

In an open letter to all Canadian Armed Forces members, chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said there may be legitimate reasons fewer of service members are calling military helplines or accessing mental-health professionals.

“Use of help lines and access to mental-health professionals is at an all-time low,” Vance wrote.

“There may be some valid reasons for this, but I would like to encourage anyone who needs to reach out or access mental-health therapy to do so.”

The decline in use of mental-health services by military personnel contrasts with reports of a surge in demand at civilian crisis centres and other mental-health organizations, with some reporting up to 50 per cent more calls from Canadians in distress.

The Canadian Mental Health Association reported this month that one of its branches in Nova Scotia, which usually fields 25 daily calls for mental-health support, was now getting more than 700 calls per day as people struggle during the pandemic.

It wasn’t immediately clear why troops are no longer calling the military’s help lines or seeking support.

The Canadian Press reported this month that 20 members of the Armed Forces took their own lives last year, the largest number of military suicides since 2014. Studies have shown that certain military members and veterans are more at risk of suicide than the general population.

Improving the mental health of service members has been a major focus for the Forces since the end of the war in Afghanistan and a rash of military suicides starting in the years that followed.

It has rolled out a suicide-prevention strategy and established helplines for service members and their families. Vance also noted in his letter that chaplains and doctors are available on military bases across the country.

The majority of Canadian military personnel have been ordered to isolate at home because of COVID-19 to ensure they’re healthy for whenever the Forces are asked to assist with the pandemic or a natural disaster. Around 85 per cent are believed to be staying home.

Vance indicated in his letter that the military is looking at resuming some training that has been suspended due to COVID-19, but suggested the return to normalcy “will be a long and deliberate operation and will be different across the country as the conditions vary region to region.”

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