Article by Tom Bateman & John Chilibeck
Photo by Tom Bateman
“I am deeply disappointed the plan released today contains no actions to reduce the unbelievably long wait time to access mental health care from a counsellor or a psychiatrist. Those with the financial means are seeking help privately or outside of New Brunswick, creating a two-tier mental health care system.” – David Coon
MONCTON • The provincial government has announced a broad new plan to help people with mental health problems, but critics say what’s needed is more action, less talk.
Premier Brian Gallant appeared at a press conference at Moncton’s Community Peace Centre on Monday where he promoted the new plan, which will focus on co-ordinating existing help for New Brunswickers struggling with addiction and mental health challenges.
“Good mental health is fundamental to the resilience of individuals, families and communities,” the premier said in prepared remarks.
“Improving mental health will also increase productivity for our businesses and economy.”
Critics, such at the Green Party’s David Coon, were upset that nothing was mentioned to address wait times for people seeking help.
“I am deeply disappointed the plan released today contains no actions to reduce the unbelievably long wait time to access mental health care from a counsellor or a psychiatrist,” Coon told the Telegraph-Journal Monday.
“Those with the financial means are seeking help privately or outside of New Brunswick, creating a two-tier mental health care system.”
While the province has promised to use some of the money from a $230-million bilateral agreement on health care it secured from Ottawa late last year, no specific dollar figures were mentioned Monday.
Warren Maddox wants some of that money spent right away. The executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters Inc. says six out of 10 people who use the three different shelters in the capital struggle with mental health or addiction issues.
The people Maddox sees every day suffer from everything from anxiety and depression to psychosis and schizophrenia.
“We’re dealing with really hard-core stuff,” he said in an interview.
The 40 beds run by the nonprofit group are almost always full, operating on a budget of about $650,000, of which less than one-fifth comes from the provincial government.
“The rest is me fundraising,” Maddox said. “We don’t want to become just a human warehouse. We want to help people move forward and become unmarginalized.”
Paul Toner, the child and youth co-ordinator with the Greater Moncton and Southeast New Brunswick United Way, said it appears the province intends to have agencies that already serve adults struggling with mental health and addiction better co-ordinate with each other, so that a person seeking help “doesn’t have to repeat their story 1,000 times” to a series of different agencies.
Instead, the agencies will be better set up to share a patient’s information, meaning someone struggling with mental health or addiction finds the help they need faster.
The concept, known as an ‘integrated delivery’ model, mirrors an approach being rolled out across New Brunswick school districts to better co-ordinate police, health services and other agencies that work with children.
Bringing the concept the community-based agencies that help adults, said Toner, is a positive move.
“We are a small province, small region and so we need all hands on deck.”
Coon supports the model, but argues it’s only one step.
During question period Friday, he asked why the government hasn’t done anything about reducing wait times for people with mental difficulties.
He referenced a “disconcerting” Conference Board of Canada report that showed New Brunswick had the highest suicide rate of any province, at nearly 14 for every 100,000 people, between 2012 and 2014.
“I’ve had constituents who finally got the courage to go to the community mental health centre and found out they’d have to wait a year before they get access to counselling,” Coon said in an interview afterwards. “That’s unacceptable.”
He said the wait times for a psychiatrist was also very long — beyond six months in many cases.
“This requires the government to put some money into those front-line services.”
Health Minister Victor Boudreau said it was unfair to suggest the province wasn’t taking mental health seriously.
“I don’t know what the magic number is,” he told reporters at the legislature on Friday. “I can tell you we’re investing more and we have been for the last three years.”
He said the amount New Brunswick spends on mental health is nine per cent of its health care budget — above the national average of six per cent.
Sarah Williams, a spokeswoman with the Health Department, said Monday the province had 92 psychiatrists working and there were six vacancies, mostly affecting rural areas.
The province’s largest regional health authority, Horizon Health Network, insisted people in crisis are offered services right away.
“Emergent cases, patients presenting to the emergency department are seen by a psychiatrist immediately,” said Jean Daigle, a vice-president with Horizon, in an email. “For urgent cases, a comprehensive mental health assessment is done within three business days. Our goal is to have urgent cases for adults be seen within a couple of weeks by a psychiatrist.”
But Maddox said of the homeless people he works with, they sometimes have to wait up to seven months for care.
“There really is two different worlds. There’s the world that if you have wealth, you can afford $150 to $200 an hour for a private therapist. But if you’re someone who can’t — and way, way too many New Brunswickers are in that category — you are on a waiting list and some kind of triage where they’re trying to figure out how serious your illness is.”