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Grassroots movement lays path for mental health justice

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It was a big step forward for the province’s burgeoning mental health movement, and an example of how to get important things done at a time when, for many, cynicism has pervaded the will to engage with the political system.

After two hours of debate on Jan. 21, members of the House of Assembly voted unanimously to support a private member’s motion brought forward by St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers to form an all-party select committee on mental health.

Though it has yet to be formed and given a specific mandate and timeline, the committee will bring together members of all three parties, who will be tasked with consulting community groups, health professionals, individuals living with mental illness and suffering from addiction, and other members of the general public, and then work together to develop recommendations for the Department of Health and Community Services before it implements its planned mental health care strategy.

Adding to the sense of accomplishment is the provincial government’s aversion to all-party committees in recent years. Newfoundland and Labrador is currently the only province in Canada to not make regular use of all-party committees.

Following months of resistance from the governing Progressive Conservatives, Rogers and others who championed the formation of a committee say it was morally and ethically the “right” thing to do.

“I knew that it was the right thing for everybody to support it. I didn’t know whether or not they would,” Rogers told The Independent Jan. 21, hours after the motion passed in the legislature.

“I had spoken with Minister [Steve] Kent yesterday, and he said that he didn’t support an all-party committee, that he felt it could be done simply by doing public consultations,” she explained. “And he was the first from government side to speak to the motion in the House, and he said the same thing. So I didn’t know how it was going to go, but I knew the right thing would have been to vote yes for this. I’m an optimist, and I hoped that the right thing would happen.”

Understanding (what the public wants) changes everything

Last fall the province launched its Understanding Changes Everything campaign and website in an effort to “help raise awareness and to reduce the stigma that exists around mental illness and addiction,” according to a statement posted to the Department of Health and Community Service’s website.

In September, when Kent took over the health portfolio following his failed bid for premier, he prioritized mental health and almost immediately made plans to develop a mental health strategy as a follow-up to the stigma awareness campaign.

But the province’s mental health crisis, abetted by what Rogers and others are calling a “broken” mental health care system, needs more than an awareness campaign and a Conservative-directed strategy, advocates say — it needs a collaborative and consultative province-wide, holistic community effort, accompanied by a transparent, non-partisan process to ensure full political accountability.

A select all-party committee “would allow us to improve the quality of debate in our province around mental health, improve accountability to engage with experts, community groups and the general public,” Meaghan Barnhill, co-chair of the Community Coalition for Mental Health (CC4MH), told The Independent on the morning of Jan. 21 before Rogers introduced the motion in the House.

Students from Holy Heart High School in St. John's conducted a survey on mental health and mental illness earlier this month. Photo by Jenne Nolan.
According to a survey conducted by Holy Heart students last fall on mental health and mental illness, 22 per cent of the St. John’s high school’s students are currently diagnosed with a mental illness, 85 per cent experience anxiety, 53 per cent have experienced severe anxiety, 78 per cent have had trouble with school because of anxiety, 35 per cent have admitted to using drugs to deal with their depression and/or anxiety, 53 per cent believe stigma is a reason we don’t talk about mental health, and 68 per cent feel they are unable to help themselves or others who suffer from mental illness. Photo of Holy Heart students at the CC4MH Launch Oct. 15 by Jenne Nolan.

“It would also help us look at different departmental challenges related to mental health, such as housing, justice, education, poverty and the treatment of seniors. When you have mental health problems it just makes the issues bigger and complex.

“We can’t just keep throwing money at issues and expecting better results,” she continued. “Oftentimes quick fixes are more damaging and costly, and instead the committee would focus on achieving consistency by creating a long term plan to tackle issues and find effective solutions to improve our mental health system.”

After reading the motion calling on the government to “immediately strike an all-party committee on mental health to conduct province-wide public consultations, review the current state of provincial mental health services, receive expert testimony on best practices in mental health care delivery, and report its findings with the goal of improving mental health programs and services to better serve the needs of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” Rogers made an impassioned plea to the Progressive Conservatives to agree to the committee.

Mental health advocates and activists who turned out to support the motion, including students from Holy Heart High School, watched from the gallery above. Most of them would have been among the 1,000-plus people who signed a petition calling for an all-party committee; Rogers delivered that petition in the House late last year.

“It’s social engagement and activism that I think people are hungry for”

Last June, after receiving numerous calls from people reporting difficulties accessing mental health care services, or encounters with ineffective services, Rogers organized a public town hall in St. John’s to invite people to share their experiences, concerns and ideas for solutions. She prepared for 60 people but more than 300 showed up and volunteers had to turn people away, Rogers told The Independent on Jan. 21, hours after her motion passed in the House of Assembly.

From that gathering came the formation of the CC4MH.

“So many people said they wanted to get together, and that there was no coordination,” said Rogers. “So I just put out an email saying whoever wants to come together, let’s come together, and then let’s talk about what we want to do.”

In the fall, the CC4MH was publicly launched at Holy Heart Auditorium in St. John’s. One after another, members of coalition groups and people living with mental illness stood before the crowd of around 1,000 and shared their ideas for how the system could be improved.

“We met every Friday morning for a few months, and it was an absolute delight to work together,” Rogers recalled. “And so many people said, these are groups that never work together, you’ll never get them to work together — and it was such an empowering experience. I think people felt really connected and I think we were able to identify what we wanted to do, and out of that came the petition asking for an all-party committee, and [plans for] the Launch. I chaired and facilitated the meetings, and now the community groups have taken it over and is taking it forward.

“It’s social engagement and activism that I think people are hungry for,” she said.

Also at the launch, Juno Award-winning songwriter Amelia Curran debuted a video featuring artists and activists from St. John’s holding signs Curran filled with facts and statistics depicting the dismal state of mental health and mental health care in the province and across Canada.

Curran had recently gone public with her own struggles with anxiety and depression.

“It was something I had been thinking about in the spring, just making a video, making some kind of statement, putting it out on the Internet – just raising my hand and saying ‘Me too’ and adding to the conversation,” she told The Independent last week, explaining how she joined forces with Rogers and the CC4MH.

“But when I got home and met with the Canadian Mental Health Association, they have to struggle through so much bureaucracy…and that frustration of well-meaning organizations who have to struggle to have an impact because they’re stuck in this bureaucracy, fighting for this tiny pot of money. And that’s not good enough. So it snowballed from there and it turned into something bigger.”

Creating a “perfect storm”

Rogers’ motion was the culmination of six months of grassroots organizing and, after two hours of discussion in the legislature Jan. 21 about how to address the crisis, Kent conceded to the push for an all-party committee.

The outcome, and the process Rogers used to achieve it as a third party opposition member, was “about the best she could have done,” Memorial University Associate Professor of Political Science Kelly Blidook told The Independent last week.

“Almost anything you show up with to put forward as a motion in the House, the automatic answer is going to be ‘no’,” he explained. “So you’re already dealing with the fact that everybody’s going to assume ‘no’, and then you have to convince them to say yes.”

Blidook said that while town halls, petitions and private member motions are not in and of themselves effective means to bring about legislative change, and given all-party committees don’t necessarily force government to introduce new legislation, Rogers used the tools at her disposal effectively by bringing all provincial politicians to a moment where they would either have to agree or disagree with the thousands of people comprising the movement she helped build.

“She managed to build a coalition beneath her, which is very important in doing this—showing you have a lot of support, you have a lot of people who care—and having a petition with over 1,000 names on it,” he said. “As we know…petitions in the House can be a real joke, but this is a case where she actually did her work and had a lot of people behind it. And then showing that support and getting up there with her motion — it’s kind of like the perfect storm of bringing everything together to accomplish sort of the best thing she possibly could.

“It is interesting though to see the difference between the petition, on one hand, and then the motion,” Blidook continued. “You can bring forward a petition, but the truth is government doesn’t necessarily need to take a position on a petition; they can debate it and do what they want with it, but at the end of the day, because it’s only a petition, there isn’t a point where they actually have to vote on it. Whereas when you finally get this opportunity to put a motion forward, that means everybody then has to take an official recorded position. And that’s usually where people will be a little more calculated, a little more careful and decide what’s the best position to take going forward.”

 She managed to build a coalition beneath her, which is very important in doing this—showing you have a lot of support, you have a lot of people who care… —MUN Political Scientist Kelly Blidook

Rogers said in proposing a non-partisan solution to a problem as pervasive and devastating as the mental health crisis, she knew she was also presenting an opportunity for all three parties to demonstrate to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians they haven’t completely forgotten what united, effective governance look like.

Members of all three parties stood in the House to share stories of how mental health has affected their lives; they all noted the need to drastically improve the mental health care system.

The PC members who spoke each said they thought their party’s existing plans were adequate and that an all-party select committee wasn’t necessary.

But once Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce stood and supported the motion, it was apparent the discussion had effectively moved some members toward an attitude of cooperation. So Rogers made her final plea.

“I said near the end, just imagine if we all said yes,” she told The Independent on Jan. 21, paraphrasing her words in the legislature earlier that day. “What we would do then is we would pat each other on the backs, then we would roll up our sleeves as we were going out of the House to get ready to do the work that we know is ahead of us. And the Liberals supported the motion. And I think it became more and more clear to government that this was the right thing to do.”

Kent stood to make his final remarks.

“I have followed the debate closely today, I have listened to what people have had to say, and I am prepared to modify the process that I was proposing to accommodate some of the wishes and desires that have been expressed here today,” he said. “For that reason, Mr. Speaker, I intend to support the motion.”

Speaking to The Independent the following day, Kent defended the Tories’ initial position that an all-party committee was not necessary.

“The only thing we were really debating was process,” he said. “We all agree that there’s a need for increased emphasis in our healthcare system and in our society on mental health issues. We recognize that there are gaps that need to be filled and that there are barriers that we need to break down, and we’ve been working to put a new mental health and addictions strategy in place to guide us forward.

 I  want to effect change and I want to make the system better… —Health Minister Steve Kent

“I want to effect change and I want to make the system better, and I want to improve services when it comes to mental health and addictions — and also increase access to those services,” he continued. “So there was a real interest on the part of the members of the House of Assembly to pursue an all-party committee, and after listening to the debate yesterday I feel comfortable with that approach and I look forward to being involved with that and supporting that.”

Asked if he thought there were any lessons worth noting in the process Rogers initiated six months earlier, which culminated in the private member’s motion, Kent said he though it “has been a good exercise in public engagement.

“It’s also demonstrated that we’re actually listening, we’re actually engaging with the community,” he continued. “We want to hear what people say and think, but beyond that we’re committed to taking action accordingly.”

On the issue of improving the quality of political discourse in the House, Kent noted Premier Paul Davis’ “commitment…to reform how we do business” in the legislature. “And this is a great example of what’s possible when people are serious about solving a problem. And I really hope we can keep as much of the politics as possible out of the process as opposed to allow us to just focus on finding the right solutions and the right path forward.”

The following day Davis prompted public outcry by rushing Bill 42 through the legislature without public consultation or adequate time for opposition parties to prepare for an informed debate. Scholars Canada-wide called the move “undemocratic and ill-informed”.

The movement continues

Whether or not the government adequately supports the all-party committee and embraces its recommendations when developing its mental health and addictions strategy remains to be seen.

However, those involved in the movement are continuing to make headway with the understanding that government doesn’t change everything — people do.

Yesterday the CC4MH held its first “visioning day” event, where members of all participant organizations came together to share their ideas for mental health care reform.

Barnhill said once the coalition has completed its report, which will be based on the collective decisions of its members from yesterday’s event, “we’ll have a very clear idea of what issues we’re focusing on first, and from that we’re going to create working groups with people from the community.”

Those working groups are “going to focus on tackling each issue and creating the advocacy piece that we’re going to use in pushing that issue forward,” she explained. “It’s really kind of a grassroots movement that’s going to pull people in from all over the province.”

Meanwhile, Curran is bringing the conversation about mental health nationwide.

Next fall she and St. John’s filmmaker Roger Maunder, who produced This Video, are taking the message of the CC4MH Launch on the road to capital cities in every province and territory across Canada.

 This about activism. It’s about breaking through cynicism. —St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers

They’re going to present the idea of community coalitions, Curran said.

“We’re going to invite all the community groups and members of the government in the same room, and just try to get everyone on the same page.

“It’s little by little, tiny nudges of the pendulum. It’s a really big job. But we have been making headlines in St. John’s, and I think people are recognizing that.”

Barnhill said on Monday Rogers stepped down as a member of the CC4MH steering committee.

“She wanted to make sure we were non-partisan now so that government would take us more seriously,” she said. “Her vision for this all along is that she would give the CC4MH back to the community, so she’s done that as of yesterday.”

Rogers is not stopping at mental health though.

On Wednesday she will hold another town hall in St. John’s. The event, “Turn Up The Heat: A Call To Action”, will focus on a variety of issues, including housing, health care, minimum wage, mental health, seniors, childcare, and whatever people who attend want to discuss, Rogers said.

“This about activism. It’s about breaking through cynicism,” she said. “It’s about hope, and a commitment and a belief that we can make change. We can make a difference.”

Blidook said numbers played no small role in Rogers’ success in getting the government to agree to the all-party committee.

“If there’s a thousand people on that petition, then presumably there’s a fair number of those people who you could get to be active doing things like Tweeting, or writing letters, or writing or talking to their own MHAs…so building up an active base and having enough people that you can show that there’s a thousand signatures, but hopefully you’ve got a set number out of that who are willing to be active and willing to mail letters or knock on doors or do whatever they need to do. And really that’s the way that in a democracy it should work.”

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Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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