New Brunswick

Mental health advocate challenges province to make good on promise

A longtime advocate for people suffering with mental illness hopes 2022 will be the year the New Brunswick government finally makes good on a promise to appoint a mental health advocate.

Paul Ouellet calls failure to appoint a mental health advocate 2 years after motion passed 'unacceptable'

Paul Ouellet of Moncton is calling on the provincial government to finally appoint a mental health advocate after a motion was passed unanimously in the legislature more than two years ago. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

A longtime advocate for people suffering with mental illness hopes 2022 will be the year the New Brunswick government finally makes good on a promise that's more than two years old.

Paul Ouellet lobbied for years for New Brunswick to appoint a mental health advocate. He celebrated in November 2019 when a motion passed unanimously in the legislature to introduce the position, but nothing has happened since.

"To me that is unacceptable," he said. "That a motion voted unanimously over two years ago has not yet been actioned."

Introduced by the Liberals, the original 2019 motion called on the Progressive Conservative government to create an independent legislative officer position, to represent people with mental health issues and their caregivers.

When the Higgs government refused, the motion was amended to create a mental health advocate position, but that has never been budgeted for, nor acted upon.

Ouellet has two siblings with schizophrenia, and he has helped to care for them for decades.

He has seen firsthand the difficulties that families like his face trying get patients the help they need.

Ouellet has fought for adequate home care for his sister on several occasions and has seen her spiral into psychosis requiring hospitalization when no care providers were available to help her manage her medication.

He now worries she will have to move into a special care home since the health system cannot provide what she needs. 

"Mentally ill individuals don't have a voice," said Ouellet, a retired civil servant. "Those individuals in the community that I journey with, who suffer from mental illness, and I accompany them to the clinic and other appointments that they have, I so often see that they're not fully understood and they're not capable to speak for themselves."

Wish list for new year 

In a letter to Health Minister Dorothy Shephard in October, Ouellet outlined his top priorities for the new year.

In addition to the appointment of a mental health advocate for New Brunswick, he asked that the mental health court that operates in Saint John be expanded to Fredericton, Bathurst, Edmundston, Miramichi and Moncton.

He is also calling for a mental health addiction treatment centre in Moncton that would be exclusively for women.

CBC News tried to ask Shephard why the province hasn't yet appointed a mental health advocate, and when someone will be appointed.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard introduced a plan to improve mental health services in the province in 2021, but it did not include any mention of the appointment of a mental health advocate. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

No one from the Department of Health has responded.

Ouellet has received a letter from Shephard in which she explained that work continues on multiple initiatives. He said her response was not what he was hoping for.

"I sometimes wonder if our high ranking officials in government are sensitized to mental illness. I ask myself that question because … it has been a need for years."

Ouellet is calling on Shephard and the Higgs government to finally appoint an advocate to represent the concerns of those who are all too often unable to get the help "they truly and deeply need."

"We definitely need an advocate position to be there for those most vulnerable in our province — the mentally ill. They need someone to be there to help them navigate the system, someone to be there to make sure their rights are respected, and that they're treated with dignity."

Mental health plan not enough

In February, Shephard laid out a five-year action plan to improve mental health services in the province.

It includes a promise for same-day service at walk-in clinics across New Brunswick, and a provincial youth centre based in Moncton by 2024.

It did not include any mention of appointing a mental health advocate.

Ouellet said that after decades of helping his sisters and brother and many others navigate the mental health care system, the plan simply does not go far enough.

Paul Ouellet goes through the detailed files he keeps about the care of his sister who suffers from severe schizophrenia. He has helped to care for his siblings with mental illness for decades, and believes that without his advocacy they would be dead. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"If I would not have been journeying with them for the past 47 years, I don't think honestly that they would be alive today," he said of his siblings.

"I can be the advocate for them — but those are only a few in my family that I'm journeying with and a few in the community. How about those others in the province who don't have anyone to talk to, anyone to express their frustration, their difficulty to navigate the system?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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