MS & Q: Problems with Mental Health Service Delivery in Hay River

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, 1 out of every 5 Canadians are facing mental health problems or illnesses today. Nearly half the population will experience such issues at some point in their life. These numbers are even higher in the NWT. There’s countless more statistics about mental health that I could quote, but I’m not going to. Mental health is about people, not numbers, and I feel confident saying that most people have either battled or are battling mental health issues, or know the struggles of someone close to them who is.  I don’t think I need to convince anyone of the importance of doing everything we can to eliminate mental illness to the greatest extent possible.

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That’s why I’m so frustrated with the state of mental health care in the Territory, and in Hay River in particular. I’ve heard that if you had mental health issues 10  years ago, you were lucky to be in Hay River, because we the services provided were excellent. However, Mr. Speaker, I’ve heard too many times from too many people that accessing mental health services in Hay River now, can be a nightmare.

Anyone who’s been to counseling knows that it’s not a pleasant experience, especially the first time when you have open up to a stranger, and dig up all the things you try to avoid thinking about. In Hay River, we always have good counselors – the problem is they’re usually not there for long. For some reason, despite the generous pay, people don’t want to stay. That means that those seeking help are forced to tell their story, from the beginning, to new people, over and over again.

Too often, this means our residents do not receive adequate treatment, and end up accessing emergency services because there’s nowhere else to go. We’re actually lucky to have permanent doctors in Hay River who are well versed in mental health issues, but issues arise again when they refer patients in crisis to a psychiatrist. It’s my understanding that such emergency referrals are to be carried out within 24 hours,  yet I’ve heard multiple cases of this taking weeks, contrary to GNWT policy.

When residents do arrive in Yellowknife for a session with a psychiatrist, they face further obstacles. They must once again open up to a stranger who, after meeting them for only an hour and a half, will have a major impact on the future of their treatment, and ultimately their well-being. After this emotional 90 minute session, which leaves many patients drained and in tears, they are shown the door, sent out into the world and back to the airport, with no place or time to calm down or recover. And Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to malign any of our health care professionals, but I’ve heard, again too many times, that patients do not feel that their issues are validated by the psychiatrists in Yellowknife, and patients often leave not only leave feeling more helpless, but also insulted.

Mr. Speaker, I haven’t even touched on the legwork that those seeking treatment are required to do just to access mental health services. There are countless phone calls to make and forms to fill out, with no one person they can look to show them what needs to be done. They have to wade through a bureaucratic nightmare, and become tireless advocates for themselves, just to receive  treatment. This is not right, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, I mentioned earlier that there was a time when Hay River had excellent mental health services, so I know we can provide high quality services, both in Hay River and in Yellowknife, but changes need to be made. I will have questions for the Minster of Health at the appropriate time.

Questions

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Earlier I spoke about some of the issues with accessing mental health services in Hay River, so I have some questions for the Minister of Health and Social Services. We can’t seem to keep counsellors in Hay River. They come. They’re good. People like them, and then they go. We have issues with referrals. They’re not being done in time. The policy doesn’t seem to be followed all the time. 31 I do not want to malign any members of the public service. I am always careful about that, but if this is an issue with management, what is being done to rectify that issue? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

MR. SPEAKER: Minister of Health and Social Services

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and I thank the Member for raising the question. The Member has shared this information with me, and his current concerns, previously. I have taken those concerns to the public administrator, who has indicated to me that they are certainly looking into the issue, and working to address any challenges within that area. I do recognize, and I think the Member as well, recruitment is difficult with some of these professions, and we continue to get out as best we can to fill those positions. With respect to structure, management, I have raised those concerns with the public administrator. He’s indicated that they are working on it. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

MR. SIMPSON: It is good to hear that they’re being worked on. I’ll be following up with this. As I mentioned earlier as well, to see a psychiatrist when you get a referral, you have to come up to Yellowknife. Basically, you fly up. You wait your four or five or six hours. You go to the psychiatrist, and you go back to the airport, or maybe your appointment is in the morning. Either way, you are in there for an hour, hour and a half. It is an emotional session. A lot of people come out of there upset. They are crying. They need some time to calm down. What happens is, they leave the psychiatrist’s office and there is no one there to help them calm down. There’s no quiet place for them to go. They are just sent out into the world. If you live in Yellowknife, you can go home. We do not have that if we are coming from out of town. What’s the plan to fix this problem, Mr. Speaker?

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Over the years, we have had a lot of issues brought to me, and this is the first time this particular issue has been brought to me, so I really thank the Member for bringing it to me, and we will certainly take a look at it. I would like to say that one of the major factors driving integration of the Health and Social Services system was to recognize that we all need to be players in moving forward and finding resolutions and solutions for our residents based on a client-focused system. This is the type of thing that I think we are going to be able to address in a single system, far easier than we were able to address in a multi-system that we had before. I really thank the Member for bringing it up, and I am certainly going to following up with the department.

MR. SIMPSON: I like all the commitments to follow up. As soon as I hear any information, I will be sharing what I can share with the public so that they know what is going on as well, because this is an issue that a lot of people are dealing with. My final question is, we have the Mental Health Strategic Framework, the Mental Health Action Plan. There are lots of action plans. There are lots of strategic frameworks in the government. I want to know: how is this going to affect people on the ground in Hay River? How are these action plans and frameworks going to affect people in Hay River accessing mental health services?

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: The department did extensive consultations in the lead-up to the creation of the framework that the Member has mentioned, and we did a validation exercise that took place with key stakeholders, including people who are actually living 32 with mental health issues or mental health illness. From there, as the Member indicated, we are going to be coming forward with a number of action plans. Those action plans will provide direction on how we’re going to move forward to do the exact things that the Member is talking about. I do not want to presuppose what is going to be in that document. I do not want to presuppose those recommendations, but I am committed to working with committee to bring those forward to put in place a solid action plan that will meet the needs of all residents of the Northwest Territories, Hay River included.

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’m looking at tabled document 25-18(2) tabled on March 3, 2016, Quality Mental Health Care and Action Plan. Is there another action plan? Is this one of the actions in this action plan? When are we going to stop putting out plans and start putting boots on the ground and making some changes? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and I share the Member’s concerns. I hate to see documents on shelves not doing anything. We have made a commitment through the framework which was released in November to come forward with three distinct action plans, including the first Child and Youth Action Plan that has ever been developed in the Northwest Territories. We are doing that with stakeholders. We are working with committee. It’s certainly going to take multiple departments to move forward with that action plan. That action plan is going to have to come to this floor to be discussed, and we’re certainly going to have to discuss this in the business plan as we attempt to resource this so that we can provide quality mental health services for youth and adults in the Northwest Territories.