'Boots on the ground' key to mental health care for rural Yukon, says retired nurse

'Psychiatric nurses are few and far between in the Yukon,' says Beverley-Lynn Harris.

Retired community health nurse critical of government's mental health strategy

Retired nurse Beverley Lynn Harris said there's a great need for mental health services in Ross River and other rural Yukon communities. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

A recently-retired community nurse says if the Yukon government is serious about dealing with mental illness in rural communities, it would hire psychiatric nurses to work with the community nursing teams.

"You just need to decide that it's important enough that it becomes part of the budget, and have that person work as part of the health centre team," said Beverley Lynn Harris, who was the head nurse in Ross River for a number of years.

Harris retired in April and still lives in the community.

She said rural nurses have front-line experience in delivering mental health care, and the need in the communities is very large.

"There's a significant mental health illness issue here and probably in most of the communities in the Yukon," Harris said.

"There are chronic mental health diseases like schizophrenia... there are other issues like depression, often complicated by things like alcoholism, or other forms of self-medication."

Few psychiatric nurses in Yukon

Health Minister Mike Nixon presented Yukon's new mental health strategy earlier this month. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Health Minister Mike Nixon unveiled the territory's long-awaited mental health strategy earlier this month, which includes a million dollar fund that NGOs, First Nations, and communities can apply for via written proposals.

Harris said that the government's mental health services branch doesn't understand the scope of the problem.

"Psychiatric nurses are few and far between in the Yukon... just saying that there's a need is not an adequate response, saying that there's a million dollars in grant money is not an adequate response.

"It's boots on the ground, just like there are nurses on the ground in each community. Bump up the number of nurses and give us some training."

Harris says the chronic disease management program should include illnesses such as depression and alcohol abuse, which currently aren't covered. 

She also wondered why a commonly-used drug such as naltrexone isn't used for alcohol dependency, even though she says it's been proven since the 1950s to be effective. 

Harris added that community nurses should receive training offered by alcohol and drug services.

"Because normally that's not something we would ever get funding to attend. And that's a blatantly obvious need in our skill set."