A draft of a long-awaited strategy to deal with mental health and addictions on P.E.I. is circulating through government, with a final report expected to be made public later this year, according to the province's Chief Mental Health and Addictions Officer Dr. Rhonda Matters.

In fall 2013, Matters was named P.E.I.'s first mental health and addictions officer as part of government's response to the growing problem — often called an epidemic — of addiction to prescription opiates. Her primary assignment from government has been to develop a long-term strategy.

'If we're not tracking the results and our successes, then the programs we have in place, we don't know if they're working.' — James Aylward, Opposition Health Critic

"We have … a set of priorities, a framework that we're finalizing, that we've passed on to other government agencies and departments … for their consideration and planning," Matters said Wednesday as she updated the legislature's Standing Committee on Health and Wellness.

The strategy itself was expected in late 2014, but at the time Matters presented government with a set of just three recommendations, saying the full strategy was likely to follow in the summer of 2015.

10-year strategy 'very complicated'

"It's very complicated. It's the first mental health and addictions plan that the province has had … so we want to make sure that we get it right, that we've consulted with and are working with all our partners so that we're able to move forward with a similar vision and similar goals," said Matters, adding it would be a 10-year strategy.

The Official Opposition has long criticized the pace of government's response to the problem of addictions, and particularly the amount of time it's taken to develop the mental health and addictions strategy.

Opposition health critic James Aylward said he's disappointed with a lack of specific information from Matters on topics like the growth of methadone treatment in the province.

"There's families out there, there's young people out there that are relying on the health system here on P.E.I. to provide the assistance they require," Aylward said.

"If we're not tracking the results and our successes, then the programs we have in place, we don't know if they're working or not."

Matters did tell the committee about some work already taking place which is helping, including the expansion of the province's Strength Program to provide residential addictions treatment for young people, and the development of a day treatment facility for youth mental health.

'Critical service gaps'

She also talked about some of the challenges ahead, referring to "critical service gaps" in treatment for young people — particularly when services involve more than one government department — and also during the transition from youth to adult treatment.

Matters also spoke of about the need to bring wait times within "clinically-acceptable time frames" for some services, specifically psychological assessments of school-age children for which some families wait years.

Verna Ryan, director of Mental Health and Addictions for Health PEI, quantified wait times and the overall strain on the system.

Inpatient mental health services in the province are running anywhere from 92 per cent to 103 per cent capacity, where 80 per cent is considered ideal, Ryan said.

She told the committee the average wait time to begin psychiatry services through the province's community mental health program was 75 days for adults whose cases were considered urgent in 2014-2015. For urgent youth the average wait was 50 days.

by Kerry Campbell