Ottawa

Royal addiction program overhaul worries counsellor

An addictions expert at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre says a revamped program to help those with a substance abuse could lose some of the care many of the centre's clients had come to rely on.

Head of psychiatry says move to a program that also considers mental illness 'long overdue'

Liz Hall has worked counselling drug and alcohol addicts at Meadow Creek for 26 years. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

An addictions expert at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre says a revamped program to help those with a substance abuse could lose some of the care many of the centre's clients had come to rely on.

The Royal Ottawa is revamping the treatment for patients who have both an addiction and a mental illness, opening a new substance use and concurrent disorder program which will offer both therapy for mental disorders and at the same time treat alcohol and drug abuse issues.

This will mean the hospital's longstanding Meadow Creek Residential Program for addiction will close this fall after operating for 30 years.

Liz Hall, one of five full-time counsellors who along with two part-time counsellors have been given layoff notices effective in December, says the group therapy sessions at Meadow Creek were invaluable.

Hall, who has worked counselling drug and alcohol addicts at Meadow Creek for 26 years, says the program offers clients a 28-day hospital stay with intense group and individual therapy to help with substance issues.  

She said the therapy sessions are a chance for peers to honestly talk about how their substance abuse has affected their lives and their loved ones and help people come to recognize that their difficulties are related to the substance abuse and not a personal flaw. 

"It allows individuals who in many cases have a great deal of difficulty in trusting and have felt extremely isolated in their addition to speak up," said Hall "The process has allowed them to break that isolation and feel better about themselves and that's allowed them to move forward to make better choices and lead successful lives." 

Concern follow-up care to be reduced

The Meadow Creek program has suffered from previous cuts to psychiatrists and nurses who helped clients with their mental health disorders, said Hall.  But she said her colleagues refer clients in her program to mental health services at the hospital and in the community.

Hall, who is on a secondment as a mental health worker in the forensic unit at the hospital, is also concerned follow-up care for addicts will be reduced.

Currently those who leave the 28-day program can come back for on-going counselling up to three times a week for two months.  But Hall says she's been told that won't be the case with the new program. 

"Some clients who have come to expect that service are rightfully upset," said Hall. "Weekly aftercare is a needed transition and without it that increases the potential for relapse and increases the risk that people who have been doing well with the hospital based supports will flounder."

OPSEU, the union which represents the employees says seven longtime casual counsellors will be out of work as well.

Hospital says change overdue

Dr. Raj Bhatla, chief of psychiatry at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, says the change is long overdue.

Dr. Raj Bhatla, chief of psychiatry at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, says the new model means fewer addiction counsellors will be needed but adds more psychiatrists, social workers and nurses will be on the team. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)
He argues systemically, mental health experts haven't done a great job in treating those with both a mental illness and an addiction but he hopes the new program will break down the silo's between psychiatry and addiction treatment.  

"[Patients] are kind of stuck between trying to find someone who is comfortable and who has the skills to say, 'You know what, you have both and we're going to provide you in real time help for both, simultaneously,'" said Bhatla.

"We don't have a program in our region that can help with the concurrent problem," he said.

Bhatla says the new model means fewer addiction counsellors will be needed but adds more psychiatrists, social workers and nurses will be on the team to provide thorough treatment for the addiction and the mental illness.  

Bhatla says the transition from the Meadow Creek program to the new Substance Use and Concurrent Disorder program is ongoing and should be completed by the end of the year. He said he is confident the hospital will find jobs for the addiction counsellors elsewhere in the hospital.

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