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By Jodie Sinnema, edmontonjournal.com September 12, 2011 StoryPhotos ( 2 )
More Images » From left to right; Michel Perron, CEO of Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Michael Trew, medical director for mental health and addictions, Alberta Health Services, Gene Zwozdesky, Alberta Health Minister and Louise Bradley, CEO of Mental Health Commission of Canada.Photograph by: Jodie Sinnema, edmontonjournal.comEDMONTON - The Alberta government rolled out its much-anticipated five-year mental health and addictions strategy Monday, promising to improve access to treatment by closing gaps in the system.
But without dollar figures to back up the plan, and few details about how many more psychiatrists are needed in Alberta or how wait times will be improved, the plan is hollow, say critics.
“It’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but to do it now with no money attached and a lot of platitudes, it’s an attempt to patch it up before an election,” said David Eggen, executive director of Friends of Medicare. “Forgive me for being a little skeptical but this is the same government that tried to shut down the Alberta Hospital a few months ago. There’s a gaping hole in our mental health capacity.”
The first year of the five-year strategy will be spent measuring the gaps in the system to determine what resources are needed and where, said Dr. Michael Trew, Alberta Health Services’ medical director for mental health and addictions. There will also be a provincewide inventory of mental health beds and housing options, since the ill often have a hard time landing stable living arrangements and can find themselves homeless, making their medication regimen difficult to follow.
In the second year, performance targets will be rolled out, such as how many outreach workers are needed for the mentally ill and addicted, or how many in-patient hospital beds are needed compared to those in the community.
Children with mental-health issues should be able to access emergency care within 24 hours, urgent care within two weeks and scheduled visits within 30 days, the plan notes. The same time frames will eventually be expanded to apply to all ages and populations.
The province also expects more primary care networks — doctors who work with nurses, dietitians, pharmacists and other health professionals to share the workload — to offer mental health and addiction services.
In total, 16 ministries will now be co-ordinating their approach to address mental health issues, including justice, health, education, children’s services, aboriginal affairs and housing.
“At the moment we don’t have an integrated, comprehensive co-ordinated plan across all 16 ministries of government,” Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said, noting his ministry gives $500 million to Alberta Health Services every year to target mental health and addiction. He estimated the other departments spend about $100 million as well. “What we have right now in our province is really a series of very good programs and very good services and some great specialists. … What we need is a better, more co-ordinated, more integrated approach.”
One in five people experience a mental health problem in their lifetimes, and up to 10 per cent of the population over age 15 may be dependent on alcohol and drugs, the plan notes. Alberta’s commitment to mental health has come under scrutiny in recent years after the high-profile suicide in 2010 of a young man who went to the Royal Alexandra Hospital emergency room for counselling, but killed himself after waiting for 12 hours. Several patients have also walked away from Alberta Hospital, sparking a review of security.
The new mental health strategy promises all Albertans, no matter where they live, will have access to appropriate mental health and addiction services, linking more remote areas through web-based programs or telehealth initiatives. Recruitment and training of more workers is expected. A specialized sub-group will also address the unique needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations.
Much of the work will be done by family doctors and community-based services and will involve help from specialists, pharmacists, nutritionists, school staff and peer support groups. Early childhood and maternal programs will be boosted. Programs for children with disabilities and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are also expected to be strengthened. Partnerships with private businesses will help bolster mental health promotion and assistance programs.
Zwozdesky said it took longer than anticipated to release the strategy — first expected in the spring — because work was interrupted by “theatrics and antics” in the Alberta legislature last fall. After now-Liberal Leader Dr. Raj Sherman was thrown out of the PC caucus for criticizing the government’s actions on the matter, the Tories faced daily questions from the opposition about allegations of physician intimidation and patient deaths due to long wait times.
Austin Mardon, a mental health advocate, said he’s pleased with the strategy’s direction and glad that those with mental illness contributed to the plan along with government representatives.
“That shows a culture shift in terms of the government’s activity with this strategy,” said Mardon, an Order of Canada recipient who has schizophrenia. “This shows a beacon towards the future and I think it’s very auspicious it came out this week.”
Louise Bradley, CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, called the strategy aggressive.
Michel Perron, CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, said the strategy keeps Alberta on the leading edge in terms of addictions treatment.
“This new strategy rightfully raises expectations among Albertans that they deserve quality evidence-based care when faced with addiction,” Perron said. “It should be no different than any other disease.”
Adequate levels of funding will follow, Zwozdesky promised. The report says a cross-ministry committee will continue to provide oversight into the rollout of the strategy.
“The plan is always 20 per cent. The doing is the 80 per cent,” said Dennis Anderson, a mental health advocate and former politician. “I think it’s very useful because this in fact keeps the issue of mental health and addiction on the top of the agenda.” The next premier will have to supply answers if the issue is dropped, Anderson said.