Nfld. & Labrador

Action on mental health, addictions can't wait, says advocate

The all-party committee reviewing the province's ability to treat mental health and addiction problems gave an update on their progress Monday, and it's clear much more work is needed.

All-party committee reveals key themes, next steps in effort to improve system

Tree Walsh, an advocate for those coping with mental health and addiction issues, says on ongoing review of the issue in Newfoundland and Labrador is "very promising," but she's worried that action won't be taken soon enough for some sufferers. (CBC)

The all-party committee reviewing the province's ability to treat mental health and addiction problems gave an update on their progress Monday, and it's clear much more work is needed.

The progress report makes it clear service access, quality of care, public awareness and prevention efforts and community supports are all lacking.

There's also a need for enhanced policy and programming.

But one advocate for those with addiction problems is worried changes won't come soon enough.

"People are dying every day, either through mental health or addiction issues," said Tree Walsh, a co-ordinator with SWAP — a needle distribution service administered by the AIDS committee of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Focus on health, housing and jobs

Walsh said the progress report unveiled Monday is "very promising" and she's encouraged that elected leaders seem to be listening.

But she added there's frustration among advocates like herself, and she wants action sooner rather than later.

An all-party committee gave on update Monday on its ongoing review of the province's mental health and addictions system. Members of the committee include, from left, Liberal Andrew Parsons, Health and Community Services Minister Steve Kent, and New Democrat Gerry Rogers. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

"We've got so many people … who are not participating in the economy but, in fact, are costing us an awful lot in terms of health care, police and prison costs," she said, adding the focus needs to be on health, housing and employment opportunities.

"It gives us hope," she said of the committee's early findings.

However, recommendations won't be made until 2016, and concrete action may take even longer.

Walsh said the system is in crisis with patients being discharged from the Waterford hospital while they are still suicidal and methadone patients being left in limbo after a recent case where a prescribing doctor had his licence suspended.

"We need to focus on doing things differently," she said.

System is underfunded

The all-party committee on mental health and addictions was established in January, and is chaired by Health and Community Services Minister Steve Kent.

He was joined Monday at a news conference by two other committee members, Liberal Andrew Parsons and New Democrat Gerry Rogers.

Kent said it's too early to make any recommendations for specific action. 

Kent and Rogers both agreed that mental health services are underfunded; while Parsons said the Liberals will reveal its plans during the election campaign next month.

Public consultations reveal gaps in the system

The progress report highlighted key themes drawn from province-wide consultations held last spring and summer.

The committee heard from individuals and families living with mental health and addictions, as well as community groups and health professionals.

"The stories that you hear are heartbreaking," said Parsons.

Kent said those who addressed the committee were inspiring and provided valuable insight into ways that the system can be "transformed."

Rogers said there were 1,825 people on a waiting list with Eastern Health to receive mental health services, while another 1,500 are waiting to be assessed.

More consultations planned

As for next steps, the committee announced it will hold more consultations with experts in the areas of addictions, harm reduction and methadone, and those who specialize in the mental health of seniors, caregivers, women, children and youth, military personnel and veterans and the LGBT community.

There will also be talks with aboriginal groups.

Andrews said those suffering from mental illness require the tools needed to help them change their perspective as the first step in a longer healing process.

He said the committee will "seek input on how to best affect that change with a strategy that will reduce the stigma around mental illness and addictions."

Rogers said the committee learned a great deal from public consultations.

"People were so incredibly courageous when they trusted us with their stories, some of incredible pain and suffering. Individuals, families, and healthcare professionals have told us loudly and clearly what needs to be done. We have to roll up our sleeves and do the right thing," she said.

The committee will continue its work beyond the Nov. 30 provincial general election "to ensure its mandate is fulfilled," according to a news release.

With files from Peter Cowan


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