Steve-Kent-new-mug.1Article by Amy Stoodley

The masses have spoken. For years people have been crying out for better mental health services and finally, the folks on Confederation Hill are listening.

Health Minister Steve Kent says the mental health system needs a transformation and it turns out the other parties in the house agree. Earlier this year, a private motion for an all-party committee on mental health passed unanimously in the house of assembly and Minister Kent says he’s making mental health his “top priority.” “We’ve got a system that isn’t sustainable,” says Kent. “There’s a recognition within the healthcare system and there’s definitely a recognition within government that mental health needs more attention.”

Kent says there are more patients than ever needing mental health treatment but the services available aren’t cutting it.”We receive about twenty thousand referrals to community services yearly, and that’s going up. We have about 3000 admissions to inpatient mental health and addictions, and those numbers are going up. We receive about 10,000 crisis calls yearly to our mental health and addictions line, and those numbers are going up.”

Waitlists for psychiatrists are long and diagnoses are delayed. While people wait, they often slip deeper into despair and in a crisis situation, emergency rooms aren’t always prepared to help. For some, it’s a matter of life or death. “I want to tackle that to make sure people working in the health care system have a better understanding of mental health and addictions issues,” Kent says. “It’s really important that those responding in emergency situations know what to look for and know how to respond.”

The Minister admits there are big problems but says not all the criticism is fair. “Over the last ten years we’ve implemented the province’s first ever mental health and addictions strategy … we just opened two new youth treatment centres for complex mental health needs and addictions in Paradise and in Grand Falls Windsor. We are getting close to opening a new adult health and addictions centre in Harbour Grace, and we are working to replace the Waterford Hospital which is long overdue.”

The provincial government puts $100 million each year into mental health and addictions services and in tough economic times, Kent says we aren’t likely to see a whole lot more. But, he says, that doesn’t mean things can’t change, “while we don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to inject into the system, I think we’ve got to find creative ways to realign some of our resources to make sure that there’s greater emphasis on mental health and addiction services.Throwing more money at something as complex as mental health services, it’s not that simple. But there’s definitely more resources needed. I’m not disputing that.”

So what does it mean when the Health Minister makes mental health the “top priority”? “We need to focus more on recovery, we need to focus more on prevention and early intervention, we need to focus more on supports for young people and we need to work closely with our school system in doing so.”
Kent says the government will also focus on awareness, making sure people know about the services that exist and where to go for help. “We have a 24 hr crisis line staffed by professionals 7 days a week. It’s important for people who are seeking help to not get frustrated and not lose hope. Although there are some waitlists for some counselling services, there are other avenues throughout the province for people to get help including inpatients services, outreach programs, the provincial health line and emergency services.”

Kent says mental health isn’t political and he’s looking forward to working with all parties to come up with a solution. “This is a societal issue that needs to be addressed…In my own family, I have seen first hand struggles with complex mental health and addiction issues. There are people who I love and care about who have dealt with suicide, who have dealt with mental illness, who have dealt with drug and alcohol addiction. There probably isn’t a family in the province who hasn’t had some direct connection to those issues. My family
is no different.”