Statement

Mr. Speaker, in Hay River, there is an eight-month wait list to see a mental health counsellor. That is completely unacceptable. During my time as MLA, I have raised concerns about the availability and accessibility of mental health services in Hay River at every opportunity, but those concerns seem to be falling on deaf ears.

An eight-month-long wait list is ridiculous. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen. The wait time to see a counsellor in Hay River is more than two-and-a-half times longer than in Yellowknife; it is eight times longer than in Behchoko; and it is 20 to 30 times longer than in Fort Smith, which is just down the highway. How is that even possible, Mr. Speaker? It boggles the mind.

I understand that, for very urgent situations, there are at least some same-day appointments available, and those experiencing mental health emergencies are supposed to receive appointments within four weeks. However, Mr. Speaker, it can be hard to ask for help, and many people resist seeking help until their situations become emergencies to them. Making them wait another eight months is inhumane. Who knows what could happen in those eight months? People’s mental health issues could cause them to lose their job, damage relationships, develop addictions, and worse.

From what I have heard, the staff at Community Counselling in Hay River are good at what they do. They strive to deliver the best service possible, and they have even undertaken some new initiatives to help the community, like offering an eight-week, mindfulness-based, cognitive therapy workshop to help adults prevent recurrent episodes of depression. They are providing services that I would argue pay for themselves. I can’t imagine that being a counsellor is easy, and I am sure the lack of resources makes it even more difficult. We need to support these people, or else we will lose them, and we’ll foster a revolving-door environment, which is a terrible thing when it comes to client care. We need to address this situation now, before it gets worse.

Mr. Speaker, 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. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Questions to the Minister of Health and Social Services

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Further to my Member’s statement, I have questions for the Minister of Health and Social Services about the eight-month-long wait list in Hay River to receive mental health counselling services. How many staff are allocated to the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority community counselling office, and how many of the staff are actually in the office? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

MR. SPEAKER: Masi. Minister of Health and Social Services.

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I would like to thank the Member for his statement. I agreed with pretty much everything that he said, that this is a problem, this is something we need to be fixing, and it’s unacceptable to have these kinds of wait times. I do take a little bit of a disagreement with his comments that these issues have fallen on deaf ears. I do not believe that to be the case, and I think the staff in the authority and in the territorial authority are working hard to resolve some of these challenges and to improve services to the residents of Hay River, so I do take offence at indicating that these issues have fallen on deaf ears.

In Hay River, Health and Social Services has three vacant community counsellor positions, and full staffing complement is six, so we are down a number of positions in Hay River. There are three mental health and addictions counsellors, two community counsellors, community wellness workers, and one clinical supervisor. As the Member indicated in his statement, the clinical supervisor position is currently vacant. The mental health and addictions counsellor and community wellness worker positions are also currently vacant. We are actively recruiting for a clinical supervisor as we speak. We are actually intending to do interviews for the position next week. We just completed hiring the one vacant mental health and addictions counsellor position, and we expect that that person will be starting in March.

MR. SIMPSON: I didn’t mean any offence, but when I bring these issues up, I know the Minister listens, I know the department listens, I know the authority listens, but I need to see some results. Otherwise, I have to make those kinds of statements. It’s good to hear that some staffing is occurring. What are the challenges to staffing? Why did we get down to this skeleton crew? I know it’s been going on a long time, so what are the challenges with staffing this office?

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: When somebody says the issues are falling on the deaf ears, usually to me that means that he is suggesting or somebody is suggesting nobody is listening. I am happy to hear that the Member does acknowledge that we are listening and that work is happening in this area.

When it comes to staffing, the Hay River Health and Social Services is currently reviewing the job descriptions for the mental health and addictions counsellor positions to make sure that the required qualifications that are identified do not create any unintended barriers to staffing those positions. They are also exploring the possibility of a mentorship model with applicants who are either recent graduates or have experience but don’t necessarily have the academic criteria.

They have also been actively recruiting for these positions, both territorially and nationally. They have posted positions on the website for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, national organizations, Longwoods, Indeed.com, Facebook pages, websites. They have gone to university job boards that offer the programs. Staff are also reaching out to colleagues for who might possibly be interested. I know that they are also reviewing the current program delivery model in order to improve wait times, service delivery, and staff retention.

Just to be clear, and I think I said this in response to another Member’s question, these are what would be considered non-emergent cases. I do acknowledge that cases evolve over time, but emergency cases are triaged and they get supports right away.

MR. SIMPSON: Yes, as I mentioned, emergency cases receive appointments within a month. That’s a pretty fast and loose definition of “emergency.”

I know that the health authority is a separate legal entity, but they receive their money through an allocation through the Department of Health and Social Services. We are ultimately responsible for them. Can the Minister reallocate some resources from the public service, from his department, to help with this backlog in Hay River?

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: Although Hay River Health and Social Services is technically outside the public service at this time, we would still like to bring them in, which I believe may actually help with some of our recruitment challenges in that area. We do consider them part of the team, and we do work closely with them.

The territorial authority has reached out to other NWT regions for assistance in Hay River. Fort Smith has agreed to accept some of the referrals to help with the wait times. Fort Simpson has agreed to offer some level of clinical supervision until such time as we can hire somebody. Unfortunately, the rest of the NWT, when it comes to community counselling programs, are facing significant shortages as far as staff, as well, so this is a territorial issue. Hay River certainly has the longest wait times and they are certainly feeling the brunt of this, but we are working hard to address that, and the territorial health authority is working closely and offering expertise and support from other regions.

MR. SPEAKER: Oral questions. Member for Hay River North.

MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Minister has mentioned a lot of the things that are happening. I have spoken with the CEO about this and the public administrator, and I’m aware of some of the things that they’re  doing. I know there is work going on behind the scenes, but when can we expect this situation to be solved and put it behind us, and when can we know that we are going to go forward and people are going to be able to receive the services they need in a timely manner? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

HON. GLEN ABERNETHY: 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. We may be able to resolve it with a full-stocked complement of staff, but if turnover occurs again, we could have some blips. That is why working with the other regions is so important.

Community counselling services in Hay River, as the Member said, at 35 weeks is inappropriate, and we need to work together with our partners to bring that down. There are apparently about 55 clients on the wait list. The authority is managing the wait list based on a priority or a risk assessment process and offering programming from group programs, which keeps clients connected with the community counselling services and provides them with the tools that they need to manage some of their situation.

There has been lunchtime and evening mindfulness group sessions, as one example of the types of things that are happening. Hay River has entered into a contract with a licensed psychologist until March 31st to assist with the clinical supervision to support staff, assist with the wait list, assist with the recruitment and review of current programs and delivery models. They have also been referring eligible clients to take advantage of the employee assistance program available through the GNWT. There are also Health Canada programs that referrals are being made to, and the health authority is recommending that anyone who needs mental health support and is not able to be seen through the existing counselling program to come to the health centre or go to emergency if it is an urgent situation.

There are a number of things that are happening. We are working hard to close this gap, and we will continue to do so.