Fixing NL’s “broken” mental healthcare system

Groups launch Community Coalition for Mental Health in St. John’s, call for government action and a strategy to deal with province’s mental health crisis

There is a mental health crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador and we need to start addressing it now.

That’s the collective message of dozens of community organizations who joined together Wednesday in St. John’s to launch a new grassroots mental health advocacy group, the Community Coalition for Mental Health (CC4MH), in front of a packed Holy Heart Auditorium.

“It was a groundswell,” filmmaker, community activist and St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers, who initiated the group’s formation after nearly six times the expected number of people turned out for a town hall discussion on mental health last June, told The Independent on Thursday.

“A thousand people, just in St. John’s alone, came out because they felt that this was so important,” she said. “And a thousand people who know that this is important, that this is a problem — that gives me hope. We see this grassroots movement taking shape and that’s what we need. We need people pushing and demanding. We have to.”

Wednesday’s CC4MH launch saw dozens of people who have suffered from mental illness, community mental health group representatives, and some local celebrities, take to the stage to share their experiences with mental health and mental illness, as well as their ideas for reforming what Rogers is calling a “broken” mental healthcare system in the province.

Those ideas ranged from early preventative measures like reforming the K-12 curricula to better educate youth on mental health and destigmatize mental illness, to putting more psychiatrists in educational institutions and workplaces, to developing alternative services that have proven effective outside Newfoundland and Labrador.

Rogers said her office receives phone calls daily “from individuals or families who are in crisis, or just trying to cope with ongoing chronic mental health issues. And to hear a mother talk about her fear that her son is going to die, and yet having to wait months and months to see a psychiatrist, months and months to get the help that they need is unacceptable.”

She is circulating a petition calling on the governing Progressive Conservatives to form an all-party committee to develop a new provincial mental health strategy. Mental health, she has repeatedly said, is a non-partisan issue.

Speaking at the launch Wednesday evening, Canadian Mental Health Association – NL President and Independent mental health columnist Mark Gruchy said one of the biggest challenges in talking about and addressing mental health and mental illness is that it “tends to splinter into so many fragments because there are so many issues and aspects of people’s lives touched by it.

“But there is one thing that runs through the entire concept,” he continued, “and that is that there are human beings who deserve to be treated as such, who deserve the services that they need to be healthy, and who deserve the space and encouragement to be themselves.”

Government responds with vow to listen

On Thursday provincial health minister and Deputy Premier Steve Kent emailed a statement to The Independent in response to Wednesday’s CC4MH launch.

“The turnout at the forum is evidence that awareness is growing and that people are becoming more comfortable and open about discussing the issues despite the stigma that still exists. These conversations need to happen,” he wrote.

“A new provincial mental health and addictions strategy is a top priority for me and our government, and we are committed to developing a new plan for the people of the province.

“I am committed to working with the groups and organizations that demonstrated their leadership and commitment at the launch of the community coalition, and I value their input on how to create change. We know it will take a concerted effort and we want to move forward together.”

Kent highlighted a number of the government’s efforts to address the mental health crisis, including its investment of $100 annually “for mental health and addictions programs and services provided by the four regional health authorities,” the more than $1 million provided annually to “ten community agencies who provide mental health and addictions services,” and the recently launched campaign Understanding Changes Everything, “aimed at challenging, and ultimately changing the way people think and act toward individuals with a mental illness or addiction.”

There are a number of choices for people who need help with mental health and addictions, he went on to say, including: “self-help and peer support groups, family physicians, outpatient counseling, inpatient services, outreach programs, a 24-hour crisis hotline, and emergency services provided by the regional health authorities.”

(To read Steve Kent’s full statement, click here.)

When numbers tell a story

On Wednesday a group of students from Holy Heart took turns sharing statistics they gathered from a survey administered at their school the week prior. The numbers are staggering:

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.
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.

22 per cent of our students are currently diagnosed with a mental illness.

85 per cent of our students experience anxiety.

53 per cent of our students have experienced severe anxiety

78 per cent of our students have had trouble with school by anxiety.

35 per cent of our students have admitted to using drugs to deal with their depression and/or anxiety.

53 per cent of our students believe stigma is a reason we do not talk about mental health.

68 per cent of our students feel that they are unable to help themselves or others who suffer from mental illness.

Local songwriter Amelia Curran launched a new song at Wednesday’s event, accompanied by a video featuring almost 100 people in St. John’s holding placards with international, national and provincial statistics on mental health and mental illness:

Amelia Curran, joined by other local musicians like Andrew James O'Brien and the Ennis Sisters, performed and debuted a video for Curran's new song, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright". Photo by Jenne Nolan.
Amelia Curran, joined by other local musicians like Andrew James O’Brien and the Ennis Sisters, performed and debuted a video for Curran’s new song, “You Are Not Alone”. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

46 per cent [of Canadians] think mental illness is an excuse for bad behaviour.

The disease burden of mental illness is 1.5 times higher than all forms of cancer, yet only six per cent of healthcare dollars are devoted to mental health.

80 per cent of people with depression will respond well to treatment, but 90 per cent cannot access these treatments.

Depression is the fourth leading cause of death in the world. It is predicted to be second by the year 2020.

80-90 per cent of seniors in long term care facilities suffer from depression.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10-19 years.

The highest hospital re-admission rate for mental illness is right here in Newfoundland and Labrador.

4,000 people die from a mental illness every year in Canada.

49 per cent of people who suffer from depression have never seen a doctor.

33 per cent of all hospitalizations in Canada are related to mental illness.

It takes an average of 8 years to be correctly diagnosed with bipolar.

Someone with a mental illness is no more likely to commit an act of violence than the general population.

(Click here to watch the video and see other statistics related to mental health and mental illness.)

Lived experiences and ideas for reform

Despite the provincial government’s acknowledgement of a problem and its current efforts to address the crisis, those who took to the stage Wednesday evening say much more needs to be done.

Local actor Andy Jones, who has suffered from depression, co-hosted the event. Jones and his wife Mary-Lynn Bernard lost their 28-year-old son Louis to suicide earlier this year. On Thursday he told The Independent that the turnout for Wednesday’s CC4MA launch indicates people have a “sense of hope that something may happen.”

“It’s so good to think that there may be a time when people can just say, hey, I think I’m going through something very serious right now, and everyone can say, oh gosh, let’s get together and help you — let’s get the right services for you and hopefully you will get back to your life again,” he said. “That’s the great hope, I think. That’s the most immediate kind of hope. Then there’s the bigger hope that, when everyone’s talking about how much they need something in society and need help, that people will naturally…start saying this has to happen, there must be this service or that service, we must improve that, we must add staff here and so on. Not because of some government directive but because it’s part of the ethos, it’s part of the world, people’s daily world, people’s daily discussion,” he continued.

Actors Andy Jones and Petrina Bromley co-hosted the CC4MH "Launch" Oct. 15. Jones, who lost his son to suicide earlier this year, said .... Photo by Jenne Nolan.
Actors Andy Jones and Petrina Bromley co-hosted the CC4MH “Launch” Oct. 15. Jones, who lost his son to suicide earlier this year, said the turnout at the event indicates people “have a sense of hope that something may happen.” Photo by Jenne Nolan.

“Just like nobody has to get up and defend why there’s a cancer centre, or why there’s money to study cancer — that’s just part of the water we swim in. Everyone doesn’t even think about that, and if that were the case with mental health then I think things would change.

“When you hear people say stuff like, luckily I met a really great psychologist, or, I had a professor at university who seemed to understand that I was going through something and steered me in a specific direction, you think, well, thank god,” he said. “But we need more of that, and it needs to be less arbitrary and by chance. It needs to be more formalized. I think that will come through a general change in our attitude towards mental illness, mental health.

Reflecting on his son’s long struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, Jones also said attention needs to be given to medication and the way pharmaceuticals are created, legislated and administered.

“In the big picture, right across the country and across the world, we need to do some meta-analysis of medications. What has actually worked? Have the drugs that are being administered—were the tests and trials realistic, or did they follow the agenda of drug companies?

“I really think there’s great hope in medication, but we’ve got to look at whether or not sometimes the way drugs have been administered, and the agenda of the drug companies and of the medical profession, have actually in some cases made things worse. I’m not blaming anybody, but we gotta start studying that. And we need to have, I think in St. John’s, better facilities, physical facilities, on every level.”

One after another, toward the end of the event Wednesday evening, people stood to share their “asks” of the provincial government in order to change the mental health system.

“My name is Patrick Hickey and I’m a student at Holy Heart and my ask is for mental health to be implement as a part of our students’ education.”

“My name is Glen Roil. I am a person with lived experience. I sit on the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Legislative Stakeholder’s Committee for Mental Health and Treatment Care Act. My ask this evening is to have a mental health and addictions wellness transition and respite centre for people, that they can go if they are too sick to be at home and not sick enough to be in hospital, and have a place that they can have counselling and just have a break from life.”

“My name is Paula Corcoran and I work with CHANNAL [Consumers’ Health Awareness Network]. I live with a mental illness. I strive with my mental illness. And I want a provincial 24-hour peer-run warm line. I want to know that at any time, no matter where I am, I can pick up the phone and have someone to talk to.”

“Good evening, I’m Dr. Brenda LeFrancois. I am a psychologist and a social work educator at MUN, and I’m asking that we come together as a community and we develop the kinds of alternative services that we know exists and works elsewhere in the world. I’m talking about alternative services like the Hearing Voices Network, the open dialogue approach, the Soteria Houses, and other 24-hour crisis houses, just to name a few. So let’s just do it.”

“My name is Amelia Reimer and I’m Cultural Support Worker with the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, and my asks this evening are for culturally appropriate services, including services sensitive to multi-generational and instutional traumas. Shorter waiting periods for services; six months to two years is too long. And better communication and cooperation between service providers. Stop the misinformation and the runarounds.”

“My name is Jenny Wright and I work with the St. John’s Status of Women Council. We ask for women’s health and resource centre to support the unique mental health and addictions issues faced by women in our communities.”

 I  am committed to working with the groups and organizations that demonstrated their leadership and commitment at the launch of the community coalition, and I value their input on how to create change.  – Health minister and Deputy Premier, Steve Kent.

“My name is Megan Barnhill and I’m a community activist. My ask is that when someone comes to the mental health system and says that I need help, that they’re not given a two-year wait list and that they’re helped before the situation gets worse.”

I am committed to working with the groups and organizations that demonstrated their leadership and commitment at the launch of the community coalition, and I value their input on how to create change. – See more at: http://localhost:9000/?p=39633&preview=true#sthash.NJvQ3tnc.dpuf
I am committed to working with the groups and organizations that demonstrated their leadership and commitment at the launch of the community coalition, and I value their input on how to create change. – See more at: http://localhost:9000/?p=39633&preview=true#sthash.NJvQ3tnc.dpuf”My name is Megan Barnhill and I’m a community activist. My ask is that when someone comes to the mental health system and says that they need help, that they’re not given a two-year wait list and that they’re helped before the situation gets worse.”

“Good evening. My name is Donna Kavanagh and I’m the retired coordinator of College of the North Atlantic’s Waterford Bridge Road Centre, which supported students with psychiatric illness. When government privatized this program in 2013, a lot of the supports and services that are known are essential to allowing people to become what they should were cut. I am asking government to restore those supports and services.”

“Hello everyone. My name is Sean Kennedy and I’m with the MUN students’ union Canadian Federation of Students Local 35, and what we’re asking for is for improved counselling services on our campus. Right now we are asking for something we don’t have but desperately need, and that’s a permanent psychologist.”

“My name is Brenda O’Brien and I’m a member of the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador and the parent of a son with autism. And for him and the one in 68 children who will become adults who have been diagnosed with autism, I ask for tolerance, friendship and acceptance. But I also ask for prompt access to the medically-prescribed, evidence-based treatments like speech language pathology, occupational therapy, and applied behaviour analysis from the time of diagnosis until they no longer need treatment. And not to be arbitrarily cut off by age, IQ or income.”

“My name is Tina Davies. I lost my son Richard to suicide. I am the founder of Richard’s Legacy Foundation for survivors of suicide loss. Did you know that in Newfoundland and Labrador we lose more than one person a week to suicide? I ask for a provincial strategy and us to be leaders in a national strategy for suicide prevention. I ask for zero suicides.”

“My name is Elaine Byrant and I’m also with Richard’s Legacy and survivors of suicide. I too lost my only daughter to suicide, and I’m asking government for province-wide crisis centres for people who need a safe place. And I’m also asking you, the voting public, to seek a government who makes mental illness a priority.”

(For a full list of people and their “asks” from the Oct. 15 CC4MH launch, click here.)

“We need policy based on evidence”

Despite the provincial government’s efforts, Rogers said there are many gaps in the mental healthcare system that are contributing to unnecessary pain and suffering in every city, town and outport in Newfoundland and Labrador. In many cases, she added, individuals and families are finding themselves in life or death situations.

“To hear the stories of what happened in our last town hall in June…people are hurting,” she said. “And what’s happening is that people are having to use our emergency rooms at hospitals that are not equipped to deal with this. They stay hours in an emergency room and because they’re not going to kill themselves or not going to kill someone else, they are sent home in the middle of the night. That is not efficient mental health care, but it’s because we don’t have the services that we need, because there are such long waiting lists,” she continued.

“And it’s not just a matter of throwing more money at it and making waiting lists shorter. It’s about looking at, what are our needs? What is the prevalence [of mental illness]? And then how do we build services that are truly responsive to the needs? We need policy based on evidence, and that’s not what we have right now.

St. John's Centre MHA Gerry Rogers. Photo by Jenne Nolan.
St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

“In the past two years funding has been cut to community groups providing mental health services, and some of them are filling incredible gaps, and sometimes their services are life and death services. And already the work they are doing, they’re doing it on shoestring budgets. I want to see that 12 per cent [funding] reinstated, and to bump it up to take into account inflation and the cost of living. There are at least six vacancies of psychiatrists in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Let’s fill those vacancies. And we need more psychologists. Look at Holy Heart — 1,000 students, and look at the prevalence of mental illness in that school, and two counsellors. And those counsellors are supposed to be doing career counselling and counselling for what courses students could be taking at school, as well as trying to provide services for kids who are experiencing extreme stress and anxiety. It’s not humanly possible for them to be able to do the work that they need to do, so let’s put another counsellor in that school. We know that early intervention is more effective.

“Some of these [solutions] to me seem so attainable,” Rogers continued. “If there is such a long waitlist for people to see psychologists and psychiatrists, then we need to get more. Because it’s not okay for someone to have to wait 12 months to get help. Imagine if you had a broken arm and you had to wait 12 months to see an orthopedic surgeon if that’s what you needed? The family doctors can only do what they can do — they are not specialists in this area. So we have family doctors scrambling to try to fill the gaps.

“If this Premier is true to his word when he says he will listen, and that he wants to consult, then the next sensible solution is—if he were to truly realize the problem we have in our mental health system—to form an all-party committee [for mental health].”

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, 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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