Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson wants more mental health support for his community, and faster.
On Feb. 22 in the legislative assembly, Simpson said patients looking to speak to mental health counsellors in Hay River are put on an eight-month wait list.
Waiting eight months is “completely unacceptable,” said Simpson.
He said mental health services in his community are overwhelmed as there are several vacancies at the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority. He asked Health Minister Glen Abernethy whether he would deliver additional resources to help the situation.
“It can be hard to ask for help, and many people resist seeking help until their situations become emergencies to them,” said Simpson. “Making them wait another eight months is inhumane. Who knows what could happen in those eight months?”
Delay in care can result in job loss, damage to relationships, the development of addictions or worse, he said.
In Hay River, mental health services are running on a “skeleton” crew, said Simpson.
Three community counsellor positions and one clinical supervisor position are vacant in Hay River. The health department is recruiting a clinical supervisor and recently filled one counsellor position.
Simpson commended the work of staff at Community Counselling in Hay River, who offer cognitive therapy workshops and pushed for more support for staff to prevent employee turnover.
“We need to address this situation now, before it gets worse,” he said. “I hear lots of talk from the government about the importance of good mental health, so I want to know why this situation was allowed to get this bad and what is going to be done to fix it.”
Hay River has 55 clients on a wait list, all of whom are being managed on a risk assessment basis. The health authority is referring clients to Health Canada programs and employee assistance programs through the GNWT, said Abernethy.
The territorial authority has sought assistance for Hay River from other NWT regions. Fort Smith will take some of the community’s referrals to cut back wait times and Fort Simpson staff are offering some clinical supervision until the supervisor position can be filled, he said.
“When it comes to providing services through staff in positions that have high turnover, we can never say with certainty that this problem will be gone,” said Abernethy.
Testart criticizes unacceptable wait times
While the government suggests average wait times in larger NWT communities like Yellowknife are two to four weeks, “the average person’s experience contradicts that,” said Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart
Testart said wait times are commonly six to 12 weeks.
“The larger issue here is that if you are experiencing mental health difficulties and you can’t see a counsellor and you can’t get help, that situation can escalate,” he said. “A lot of the time, it’s a slow decline and then there is a breaking point and a crisis point. If we’re not taking care of people before the crisis point then it’s not going to work.”
To reduce the demands on an overwhelmed system, the GNWT needs to partner with private institutions. One constituent who could not wait to seek addictions treatment is now saddled with $20,000 in medical bills that are not covered by the government, he said.
“When they brought the financial request, the government said you chose to jump the queue so we’re not going to reimburse you for any of the expenses,” said Testart.
The GNWT does offer same-day counselling to urgent clients, countered Abernethy. If a patient is on a wait list and their situation has changed “they should immediately reach out to Health and Social Services” to conduct a new and updated assessment, he said.
Green criticizes budget deliberation ahead of action plan on mental health and addiction
MLAs are debating the 2019-20 budget but will not have an opportunity to oversee the mental health and addictions recovery plan ahead of budget deliberations, said Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green.
“This job is making me very cynical,” she said. “The fact that we have to do the budget today, but we don’t get to talk about the Mental Health and Addictions Recovery Action Plan until next week means that we are not able to discuss the details today that are relevant to this budget.”
“I find that the timing of this is unfortunate, if not directly purposeful,”said Green.
Abernethy called Green’s suggestion “deeply insulting.”
“I still take offence to the suggestion that we would hold back the draft action plan as some way to subvert the budget process,” he said.
Green was “disappointed” that the recovery plan “doesn’t come with a funding ask” and that all required actions are being funded from existing budget allocations.
The GNWT took swift action to allocate funding to Child and Family Services after it became the subject of a scathing auditor general report. The fallout from that report saw quick work to respond to the auditor’s findings and 21 new positions worth $3.3 million added into the 2019-20 budget.
Green pushed the health minister to apply the same “leap” over government “slowdown processes” with child and family services file to mental health and addictions.
The 2018-2019 budget for mental health and addictions was $17-million. The 2019-20 budget allocates $18-million to community mental health and addictions.