Working with what its got: Health and Social Services plan for mental health and addictions

From left to right: Sara Chorostkowski, addictions services manager; Glen Abernethy, Minister of Health and Social Services; and Bruce Cooper, Deputy Minister of HSS.

Another day, another plan from the department of Health and Social Services.

On Wednesday, the department presented its draft plan for mental wellness and addictions recovery to the committee of social development.

The two-year plan has four objectives aimed at reducing stigma, creating better community supports, and making it easier to access services for mental health, addictions and family violence.

That last point, linking family violence and mental health, troubled some of the committee members.

Julie Green asked why the plan had a strong family violence component and if the department considered the stigmatizing effect of including it.

Bruce Cooper is the deputy minister of Health and Social Services. He said the work was already closely aligned within the department and added that family violence “can be a consequence and a contributor” to mental health issues. Cooper also said that the department didn’t consider adding the family violence component as creating stigma.

The presentation mentioned about 324 women access family violence shelters each year but had no figure for men.

Green asked what proof the department had that the shelters were accessed more by women than by men. Cooper responded by saying it didn’t have data to support this, but said this seemed to be the case anecdotally.

Not enough demand for treatment centre

In terms of dollar figures, there was no specific mention of new money but the department did put $730,000 towards the On-the-Land Healing Fund for mobile treatment in this year’s budget.

The plan also leaves out any mention of a dedicated addictions treatment centre.

Health and Social Services Minister Minister Glen Abernethy essentially said there wasn’t a high enough demand to justify a treatment centre in the North.

“We’ve never had that many people who’ve identified to be ready to go to treatment at one time to actually make this effective,” he said.

Rather, Abernethy said the plan focuses on better aftercare for people who come back from treatment centres in the south.

The presentation showed about 143 people seek facility-based addictions treatment every year. The department puts in about $2.5 million annually for these services.

Addressing wait times

The plan also aims to address the lengthy wait times for mental health services in the territory. For example, people in Hay River are waiting up to eight months for these services.

Minister Abernethy said this is often due to staffing shortages; in the case of Hay River, he says there has been an increase in counsellors to “get through the backlog.”

But the plan itself doesn’t reflect staffing issues.

Rather, Abernethy said it’ll give health practitioners “better tools” to refer people to appropriate services, essentially a more effective triage process. That would include e-mental health services instead of in-person meetings and a walk-in clinic for one-time appointments.

According to the presentation approximately 914 residents access community counselling programs every month. The main issues addressed are addictions, mental health and trauma. In this year’s budget, the department is investing $8.8 million into community counselling.

Government approach to alcohol

The majority of committee members said alcohol is the biggest challenge.

The plan proposes an “interdepartmental task force” to develop what Abernethy calls a “government approach” to spreading information about responsible alcohol consumption. The task force would be advised by a group of people with “lived experiences” with mental health and addiction challenges.

“We can keep opening programs but if people don’t know they exist or if people aren’t comfortable with them, it doesn’t matter how many programs you put out,” said Abernethy. “We want to make sure our programs are targeted to those individuals who need them.”

For now, HSS will wait on feedback from the social development committee before finalizing the plan.

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