Thunder Bay

Pressure grows on Ontario to invest in mental health, addictions support in the north

Provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath was in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Tuesday to call for more mental health and addictions resources in the city.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in Thunder Bay to announce support

Provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath speaks to Carolyn Karle, an advocate for mental health and addiction resources, at a media event in Thunder Bay, Ont. A photo of Karle's 31-year-old daughter Dayna lies on the table. Dayna died of an accidental overdose on Sept. 19. (Logan Turner/CBC)

The leader of Ontario's official opposition is calling for more mental health and addictions resources in Thunder Bay.

NDP leader Andrea Horwath visited the northwestern Ontario city on Tuesday, as pressure grows on the provincial government to fund a new 40-bed mental health and addictions crisis centre.

That proposal was submitted at the end of March 2021 by St. Joseph's Care Group, a not-for-profit healthcare organization that provides mental health and addiction services in the city.

But in the seven ensuing months, neither the organization's vice-president of addictions or mental health, Nancy Black, nor Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro have heard anything about it.

"We do feel like we're being ignored," said Carolyn Karle.

Carolyn Karle holds a photo of her daughter Dayna, 31, who died earlier this fall from an unintentional overdose in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Logan Turner/CBC)

She's been advocating for more crisis beds in Thunder Bay since her 31-year-old daughter Dayna died of an accidental overdose on Sept. 19. 

In recent weeks, Karle and her supporters have been flooding social media with the hashtag #tbaydemandsdetox and publicly asking Ontario Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo why there has been silence on the 40-bed proposal.

"We need to get more funding up here because people are dying every day," Karle said.

Disproportionate impact of opioid crisis in north

In 2020 alone, 99 people died of drug-related overdoses in Thunder Bay.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 people are being turned away every year from the Balmoral Centre, the only withdrawal management facility in Thunder Bay.

That's an average of eight people denied access to service every day.

"My campaign started as 'TBay demands detox' because I know that getting into detox is a foot in the door [for addictions treatment]," Karle said.

But the need for mental health and addictions programming stretches beyond more detox or crisis beds. 

People and service providers in smaller towns and cities are being overwhelmed by addictions and homelessness, and are calling for better access to treatment.

The head of the Ontario Medical Association was recently in Sudbury and noted the "profound and disproportionate impact of the opioid crisis and mental health issues" in northern Ontario.

NDP promises investment in the north, if elected

CBC News requested an interview with Tibollo, but did not receive a response.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health said they are reviewing the "proposal for operational funding for a Thunder Bay Crisis Centre," but they said they have not received a proposal for "capital funding."

Michael Tibollo is Ontario's associate minister for mental health and addictions. (Ontario Legislative Assembly)

The ministry is continuing to work with local organizations to identify needs and distribute funding for mental health and addictions, the statement added, which includes more crisis beds.

They've previously announced $3.8 billion over 10 years to rebuild and modernize the provincial mental healthcare system.

As the countdown to next spring's provincial election continues, Horwath promised to make sure northern Ontario would get "its fair share" of mental health and addictions investments.

"It's just not equitable health care through northern Ontario. The resources just are never enough," she told CBC News in an interview.

While Horwath stopped just short of committing to build the 40-bed crisis centre in Thunder Bay, she said, "these are exactly the kinds of things that we will be investing in … because we know it will save lives."