Nova Scotia panel wants shorter wait times for youths needing mental health help
An expert panel is calling on Nova Scotia to shorten wait times for children and youths who have been referred for a mental health assessment, but the health minister says the province is already having a tough time meeting existing standards.
Maureen MacDonald was responding Monday to the release of a report from a 12-member advisory committee that produced 61 recommendations for creating the province's first comprehensive mental health strategy.
The report highlights the fact that most mental health disorders — an estimated 70 per cent — begin to appear before age 25. However, the committee found that "long wait times for children and youth with symptoms of mental illness was a particular concern."
As a result, the report recommends reducing wait times for children and youths beyond the existing provincial standards.
The committee says urgent cases should be offered an assessment within a week instead of 10 days, semi-urgent referrals should be offered an appointment within two weeks instead of four weeks, and regular cases should be seen within 21 days.
"We heard throughout the province that you have to get people early," said committee co-chairman Michael Ungar, a professor at the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"We know that if we can catch kids as they begin to show some of the signs related to mental illness and addictions problems ... the less likely those conditions are to become chronic."
But the province isn't even meeting the existing standards, despite being admonished for lengthy wait times by the province's auditor general in 2010.
"We're the only province in the country that has mental health standards, (but) we haven't been able to meet them and we need to do the work to get us there," MacDonald said outside the legislature.
She said the province plans to release its mental health strategy some time this spring.
Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said the contents of the report merely restate was is already known about the system.
"It could have been said two years ago," he said in an interview.
"Anyone ... would have recognized we had to deal with the gaps, we had to invest in early intervention. To wait this length of time to receive that report is disappointing. We should have had a mental health strategy on where we're going next."
Dr. Stephen Ayer, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, said the government must now take action.
"The important thing is that the committee has completed its work and now we can move on to the actual development of the strategy," he said. "What's more critical is what the government does with this document."
The committee's report — almost a year overdue — says that virtually everyone consulted for the study said there were problems with wait times and after-hours services.
The report also says there are too many gaps in the system, particularly when it comes to transitions from one service to another.
The Health Department and Community Services Department, for example, consider the transition from youth to adult at different ages, said Ungar.
Among other measures, the committee recommends expanding telephone crisis intervention services across the province, improving mental health awareness among health professionals and expanding housing options.
The committee does not say how much it would cost to implement its recommendations, saying it did not have a mandate to calculate expenses.
It is estimated that about 180,000 people in the province are affected by mental illness — that's about one in every five.
The provincial government announced it would draft a new mental health strategy in March 2010.
At the time, a group of mental health advocates complained the mental health system was in chaos, plagued by long waiting lists and a lack of funding.
More than a year later, the committee was appointed and senior health officials were saying the province simply didn't have the staff to offer adequate mental health care, particularly for children.
At the time, about 3.5 per cent of the Health Department's budget went to mental health services and there were between 900 and 1,000 families waiting for help at the IWK Health Centre, the province's largest children's hospital.
As well, Nova Scotia's auditor general, Jacques Lapointe, criticized the Health Department in June 2010, saying the department failed in its responsibility to evaluate the quality of mental health services across the province.
By December 2010, the province's mental health system was under the microscope again, when provincial court Judge Anne Derrick released her final report into the death of Howard Hyde, a mentally ill man who died in 2007 after a struggle with guards at a Halifax-area jail.
The inquiry heard that there were numerous miscues and persistent confusion among health and justice officials as Hyde moved through the system. Many of Derrick's 80 recommendations call for improved training, more funding for mental health services and better co-ordination and communication between justice and health officials.
23 April 2012