Recovery, prevention should be the priority of new mental health ministry, advocates say
Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon will lead Department of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery
Advocates say the creation of the first ever minister for mental health, wellness and recovery in Manitoba is exactly what Manitoba needs right now to help bring these issues to the forefront — especially during a pandemic that has left so many feeling anxious and isolated.
During the cabinet shuffle Tuesday, it was announced that Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon will lead the newly created department, splitting the duties of the Health portfolio, previously held by Cameron Friesen, with former Families Minister Heather Stefanson.
The new portfolio will hopefully lead to better coordination of services and focus on prevention, said Chris Summerville, the CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada.
He wants to see more focus on promoting mental health and wellness, rather than just treating mental illness.
"We're primarily oriented toward reduction rather than recovery and quality of life."
He pointed out that the Virgo report, a lengthy review into the Manitoba mental health and addictions system published in 2018, described the state of the province's various services like a pinball game, and how people often get lost while trying to navigate them.
Now, he hopes that Gordon will act on the many, many recommendations in that report.
"I would hope that she will really take that off the shelf and use it. We don't need new studies."
Supports for seniors
Rita Chahal, executive director of Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, said she sees the new department as an opportunity to build a solid mental health foundation in the community.
"There are so many people who experience isolation, loneliness, melancholy and other traumas," she said.
Chahal said she would like to see more services for seniors, who have been particularly impacted by isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. It's something that's impacted her personally: her father passed away just two months ago in a long term care home in Ontario.
She said his health severely declined after lockdowns went into place. Because he suffers from dementia, he couldn't understand why no one was able to visit him," she said.
"It was a difficult time for us and a difficult time for him. And that loneliness eventually just led to him just giving up," she said.
"So I think that understanding of what seniors go through is an important aspect of mental well-being and recovery and taking care of our loved ones, both young and old."
She also wants to see more education in schools about mental health and wellness.
This is an opportunity by having this ministry to talk about mental health and to teach kids and everyone about tools and supports for good mental health," she said.
"It's an opportunity for education, for advocacy, to talk about recovery, hope, resilience."
Manitoba is not the only province to have a ministry focused on mental health. British Columbia, for example, has a ministry of mental health and addictions that was created in 2017.
Brandon University political science professor Kelly Saunders says COVID-19 has driven home the need for governments to take a closer look at all aspects of health.
"We're all suffering with greater rates of anxiety, of depression, of social isolation, and so that continues and will continue beyond a pandemic," she said.
"No question during this pandemic, we've really seen a focus on the mental health care challenges."
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Chris Summerville as the executive director of Peer Connections Manitoba, formerly the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society.Jan 07, 2021 2:47 PM CT
With files from Lauren Donnelly