'They want our help': Child advocate blasts Manitoba's mental health, addiction supports

Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth says the province lacks a strategy to help young people with mental health and addiction issues and isn't doing enough to stop youth suicides.

Manitoba lags behind other provinces in providing mental health and addictions treatment, says Daphne Penrose

Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth says the province isn't doing enough to help young people with mental health and addiction issues. (Peerayot/Shutterstock)

Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth says young people are dying from drug overdoses and suicide while the province remains mired in "ideological debate" about treatment.

In a statement published Friday, Daphne Penrose outlined concerns with Manitoba's mental health and addictions system, which she says lags behind those in other provinces. 

She said her statement comes after meeting with provincial officials this week.

"I am disappointed to learn that six months after the Virgo report [on mental health care and addictions treatment in Manitoba] was released, the government still does not have a concrete plan of action for youth mental health and addiction," reads the statement, which says 143 young people have died by suicide over the past 10 years, including eight last month alone.

Penrose also said drug-related deaths — including methamphetamine overdoses — are "skyrocketing" and the number of meth-related deaths doubled over the last year.

"While other provinces move forward in addressing Canada's opioid crisis with … decriminalized public health approaches to substance misuse, Manitoba lags behind, seemingly stuck in an ideological debate, at the grave expense of too many children and youth," she said.

"All of us, as parents, grandparents, and community leaders, have a personal stake in doing better by our children and our youth."

Barriers to service

Currently, Manitoba's youth mental health services and supports have restrictive admissions criteria that prevent young people from getting the treatment they need when they need it, said Penrose.

Penrose is advocating for a "full continuum of services" to deal with the trauma that can lead to mental health and addiction issues.

"They need early intervention and prevention services so that they can get assistance in dealing with that trauma before it becomes too much and they turn to possibly drugs or alcohol or they start having mental health issues," she told CBC News in an interview Friday.

"So really it is about the continuum of services so that we can get early intervention and or — most desirably — prevention at an early age so kids can learn how  to self-regulate, learn how to deal with anxieties." 

She also said a decade's worth of data gathered during her office's investigations was turned down when she offered it to the authors of the Virgo report.

Manitoba's approach to treating opioid addiction is 'seemingly stuck in an ideological debate, at the grave expense of too many children and youth,' says Daphne Penrose. (CBC News)

While she said many of the things her office has advocated for ultimately ended up among the 125 recommendations made in the report, she thinks the  data would have made for a more well-rounded look at the issues facing Manitoba's youth.

"We've learned a lot about the barriers to service and why kids are not able to access service and some of the struggles parents and CFS have had trying to access services," she told CBC News.

"There's no criticism of the report, only that the voices of our youth really do need to be in there."

Penrose says her office has launched its own special reports into Manitoba's mental health and addictions services.

"We have to set aside our own comfort levels as adults and service providers and listen to the voices of young people," she wrote.

"They don't want to be dying from their addictions — they want our help."

The four reports will be completed over the next year, said Penrose, and one of the reviews will look at the deaths of 16 female youths who have died by suicide and or as a result of addictions issues.

The investigations will be made public once they're finished, she added.

Working on solutions

A spokesperson for the Progressive Conservative government said it's working on solutions to the problem and more announcements stemming from the Virgo report are coming.

"Shortly after forming government, we determined more needs to be done to help youth, particularly for those struggling with mental health and addictions issues," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to CBC News Friday.

"That's a primary reason why we commissioned the Virgo report, which provided the most extensive look into mental health and addiction in our province's history.

"One of the recommendations made in the report was to streamline the system for patients seeking help with their addictions by creating RAAM clinics."

The first of five planned rapid access to addictions medicine clinics — walk-in clinics specifically for people struggling with addictions — opened earlier this month.

"A plan to implement other recommendations made in the report, including many that target youth, will be announced later this fall," the government spokesperson said.

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