By Sneh Duggal
The Canadian Mental Health Association said it would cost $2.5 million a year to put into action an NDP motion that requested a funding boost for mental health and addictions services in the Niagara region.
NDP MPP Wayne Gates introduced a motion on Dec. 6 that “the government should enhance front-line mental health services in the Niagara region by funding three, 24-7 mental health and addictions drop-in centres in Niagara Falls, Welland and St. Catharines to provide early intervention, resources, support for caregivers, and crisis services for those struggling with mental health and addiction issues.”
All parties in the House supported the motion, which is non-binding.
Gates said his job now is to highlight the need for these services and talk to the health minister and others to convince them that they “should allocate the funding to help Niagara and help young people and people who are suffering.”
In October, 19-year-old Tanner Unger died by suicide at the Burgoyne Bridge in St. Catharines. Gates noted this tragedy “really hit home” and that this suicide and another at the same location pushed him to take action.
“I was really heartbroken by that story as I have a young daughter who is 21,” he told QP Briefing. While he didn’t know Unger, Gates went to the funeral, which he said was full of youth.
“The pastor talked to those kids and said …‘The message that I want to get to you is that you have lots of people that love you, lots of people that care about you and you have to reach out to get help,’ ” Gates said. “When I looked around the room, those same young kids were crying and hugging each other because that’s how they were feeling.”
He said it’s a moment he won’t forget. He then proceeded to tell his staff, “we’ve got to do more.”
“I think having someone commit suicide in Niagara every eight days is heartbreaking,” Gates said.
“Without question it’s an issue in Niagara, and the statistics are sad and they’re very telling,” said Camille Quenneville, CEO of CMHA, Ontario Division. “The level of suicide there is extremely alarming.”
Gates started meeting with groups including CMHA in the Niagara region to find out what was needed, and the feedback was that expanding CMHA’s urgent support services — to make them available 24-7 — would be helpful.
“He has come at it, I think, in the right approach, in that he wanted to engage community, he wanted to learn and see what was best on the ground,” Quenneville said.
Tara McKendrick, executive director of CMHA, Niagara Branch, said they’ve been running the urgent support services program, aimed at providing people an alternative to hospitals when they are experiencing a crisis and need to talk to somebody, since 2013.
No appointment is needed, and staff will offer crisis intervention, conduct safety and risk assessments for suicide, connect people to other needed resources and also do a followup.
Currently, CMHA Niagara operates the program in two locations; Niagara Falls and St. Catharines. The Niagara Falls drop-in counselling program operates out of CMHA Niagara’s stand-alone office, while the St. Catharines program runs out of a larger centre that also provides access to crisis beds and withdrawal management services.
The limitation, McKendrick said, is that current funding only allows the association to run the program Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and at two locations.
A $2.5-million funding boost would allow CMHA Niagara to expand the urgent support services at the two existing locations and open up a new office in Welland, which McKendrick said tends to be “under-serviced and under-resourced.”
Currently the program has five full-time equivalents for the two locations, but 24-7 services would require a minimum of two staff members at a time at each location “for safety reasons and also to manage the people who may come in and making sure that we have somebody to respond,” McKendrick said.
She pointed out that for Welland, the funding would basically mean the presence of an office with two people available for crisis intervention rather than operating a large facility.
“We would need to find a space so that’s going to require talking to community partners and see where we can operationalize a 24-7, considering location and where the need is and also safety for everybody,” she said.
McKendrick added that while there is a 24-7-phone crisis line in Niagara, there are limits to that service.
“Quite often the face-to-face is much more impactful,” she said. “When people don’t know where else to go or there are no other options, they go to the hospital emergency, and that backlogs the hospital emergency room.”
She said many situations could be addressed by talking to a mental health counsellor and that there is no scheduling when it comes to a crisis.
“Somebody coming to urgent support at 11:30 in the morning, we quite often find that the crisis started during the night and by the time they see somebody … it’s potentially escalated, whereas if they could have connected with somebody earlier, there could have been a chance to intervene sooner,” she said.
When contacted, Hayley Chazan, press secretary for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the government has promised to “make mental health a priority.”
“That’s why we were pleased to support this motion and why our government has committed to investing $3.8 billion to develop and implement a comprehensive and connected mental health and addictions strategy,” Chazan wrote in an email.
The Progressive Conservatives plan to provide $1.9 billion in funding for “mental health, addictions and housing supports” over a 10-year period. The investment was a PC campaign promise, and the party has said the federal government will match the amount to total $3.8 billion. Chazan said the money would go toward “direct front line care, reduced wait times and improved access to mental health services for Ontarians.”
As part of this investment, Elliott announced on Dec. 19 the addition of 50 beds for mental health at 12 hospitals in the province.
“This immediate investment will help lower wait times for those in need of in-patient mental health and addictions treatment,” the health minister said in a statement.
Chazan later noted to QP Briefing that these beds would be funded until March 31 “while the ministry develops its multi-year mental health and addictions strategy.”
Chazan said the hospitals set to receive the beds include:
- The Ottawa Hospital, Ottawa
- Niagara Health System, Niagara Region
- Joseph Brant Hospital, Burlington
- Health Sciences North, Sudbury
- Providence, St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto
- Trillium Health Partners, Mississauga
- Southlake Regional Health Centre, Newmarket
- Bluewater Health, Sarnia
- Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Kingston
- Grey Bruce Health Services, Owen Sound
- St. Joseph’s Health Centre, London
- St. Joseph’s Care Group, Thunder Bay
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