New Brunswick

Mental health reforms being ignored: N.B. expert

A long-time New Brunswick mental health activist is worried that the province's next government will forgo its obligations to the mentally ill.

A long-time New Brunswick mental health activist is worried that the province's next government will forgo its obligations to the mentally ill.

Eugene Niles is a former warden of the province's largest prison and a past president of the New Brunswick branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Back in 1996 he said New Brunswick had one of the best mental health systems in North America, but now it has fallen behind.

The Liberal government committed to improving services for the roughly 10,000 people needing treatment across the province, but Niles said on Wednesday that it has never acted on the report it commissioned on the issue.

Former health minister Michael Murphy hired Judge Michael McKee to review the system in 2008.

"He spoke to professionals, he spoke to health-care givers, he spoke to families, he spoke to those in recovery," Niles said.

"He wrote a very comprehensive report and those recommendations should be looked at seriously by the government."

McKee released his report in February 2009. It contained 80 recommendations that called for a drastic overhaul of the mental health system.

The judge's report urged the provincial government to invest in early intervention, income support measures and to place a greater emphasis on keeping people with mental illnesses out of the legal system.

Liberals promised to address McKee's recommendations by spring 2010, and according to Niles, department officials have the plan.

But the mental health expert said the provincial government has not made the department's response public.

"Those kinds of reports after an election normally sit on the shelf for a long time," Niles said.

"New governments always have their own priorities. I'm urging the government to release it now, and let the new government, whoever they are, implement those recommendations."

More funding needed

Niles said the New Brunswick government has yet to create a network of mental health courts. He said the province is not fully funding the costs of anti-psychotic drugs, which is making some patients choose between taking their meds or paying their rent.

The mental health issue should be on politician's radar, Niles said, especially after a coroner's inquest into the Taser-related death of Kevin Geldart in police custody and the prison suicide of 19-year old Ashley Smith.

The election campaign started a week ago and while the five official political parties have crisscrossed the province making announcements, so far none have directly targeted reforming the mental health system.

Niles said the next government should address the fact that only 3.5 per cent of the Department of Health's budget is spent on mental health when the national average is closer to 5.5 per cent.

"More resources for the school system," Niles said, is one of the reforms he'd like to see implemented.

"A mental health court would be helpful in more than one area of the province. The cost is not horrendously high. Mental health services should receive their fair share of the budget."

Liberal Leader Shawn Graham said deputy ministers are studying recommendations from McKee's report.

"It's my understanding that the deputy ministers have been looking in each respective department so that they can come forward with a concrete plan of how we can work as one unit of government versus independent departments," he said. 

Niles wants the report released now, so that whoever forms the next government can act on it.