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Caring for the walking wounded

When Arthur Mitchell broke his wrist last year, he was in surgery by the next morning. "My injury was not life threatening, but it was dealt with immediately, because it was patently obvious," said the Liberal leader.

When Arthur Mitchell broke his wrist last year, he was in surgery by the next morning.

“My injury was not life threatening, but it was dealt with immediately, because it was patently obvious,” said the Liberal leader.

But there are many Yukoners whose injuries aren’t so obvious.

Mitchell calls them “the walking wounded.”

And on Wednesday, he laid out the Liberal party strategy to care for these folks.

“Mental health is the poor stepchild in the health-care family,” said Mitchell, noting that there are walks for cancer, MS and ALS, but not for mental health.

“Mental-health issues are like an iceberg,” he said.

“You only see the tip of it.”

And mental-health issues don’t just affect the individual, or their immediate family, added Copperbelt South Liberal candidate Colleen Wirth. “Neighbourhoods and whole communities suffer when individuals struggle with addictions and mental health.”

Wirth is a registered nurse, who spent years working at Whitehorse General Hospital.

At the hospital, she dealt with a number of regulars - patients, many with mental-health issues, who visited emergency on a daily basis.

“We are dealing with people in crisis, waiting until they arrive at the emergency room instead of setting up support services so we don’t keep repeating the crisis over and over,” said Wirth.

And “society is OK with this continuing crisis, because it remains largely hidden.”

Although, at first glance, it’s invisible, the effects of the Yukon’s mental-health crisis can be seen in the poverty and homelessness plaguing the territory, said Mitchell.

RELATED:Read all of our election coverage.

The Liberals promise to improve mental-health services by developing a comprehensive mental-health plan, similar to BC’s. It includes an inventory and analysis of existing services, prompt access to appropriate services, improved collaboration between service providers, and comprehensive and appropriate training for those working with people with mental-health issues.

Mitchell would also establish a local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and hopes to increase public understanding of mental-health issues and services.

The Liberals will also expand mental-health services in Whitehorse and the communities, and provide supported housing for people struggling with mental-health issues.

“The primary factors that shape the health of people are not medical treatments or lifestyle choices but rather the living conditions they experience,” said Wirth.

There’s no denying mental-health problems often lead to poverty and homelessness, added Mitchell, who volunteers for the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition and for Whitehorse Connects.

The Liberals also support the recommendations of the Task Force on Acutely Intoxicated Persons at Risk, which calls for a shelter, sobering centre, detox and medical clinic to be established downtown.

The Yukon Party received this report last year, but has decided against creating a comprehensive sobering centre, opting instead for a glorified drunk tank at the jail. (See related story, page 3.)

Wirth, now working at Yukon College, where she oversees student services, still deals with people in crisis on a daily basis.

And many of them are struggling with mental-health issues, she said.

“I have people in tears walking into my office because they’re struggling to fill out forms, or can’t manage to make an appointment,” she said. “They can’t navigate the system.”

After missing the bus, and consequently an appointment with their social worker, for example, someone struggling with mental-health issues is suddenly told Social Services will no longer meet with them and they must communicate through forms, which are completely unintelligible to them.

“There are so many things they struggle with that we just take for granted,” she said.

To further expand the community’s understanding of mental-health issues, the Liberals are promising to create an annual Mental Health Education Bursary for four Yukon students.

The public purse is not infinite, said Mitchell, who recognizes all these improvements come at a cost.

But the cost to society of not helping those struggling with mental-health issues is much greater, he said.

If we don’t have the ability to treat mental-health issues, then they will remain a burden on society and on the hospital, added Wirth.

“If we are a truly caring society, we will care for these people,” said Mitchell, who was once a medical student.

“Just because they’re not wincing in pain doesn’t mean they don’t need help.

“We can’t just wait until they hit crisis and end up in jail, or in the hospital.

“We need preventative care, instead of acute crisis management.”

Home-birthing health care

The Liberals will welcome midwives to the health-care fold, if elected.

Doctors regulate themselves, said Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell, mentioning the Yukon Medical Association. “But government thought midwives regulating themselves was problematic.”

Now that there are national standards for midwives, those barriers are no longer in place, he said.

And in communities like Dawson, where there are no obstetricians, a midwife may be a great alternative, especially for prenatal consultation. Midwives could offer a welcome alternative to driving five hours to Whitehorse, said Mitchell.

“It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice,” he said.

The midwife announcement was one part of the Liberals’ homegrown health-care plan, released Thursday.

The Liberals will also continue funding the Practical Nursing Program at Yukon College, after the current funding agreement expires in 2012.

And the party will work with Yukon College and other stakeholders to develop university-accredited nursing and counseling programs, as well as a certified midwifery program.

The Liberal party also wants to establish paramedic training to ensure all Yukon residents have access to emergency medical services.

It’s promising to triple the intake for the Yukon Registered Nurse Education Bursary, the Medical Education Bursary and the Health Profession Education Bursary from 12 to 36 individuals, and double the Family Physician Incentive Program to $100,000.

“This will encourage more doctors to come to the Yukon,” said Mitchell.

The territory is seeing an aging demographic, he said. Right now, most workers at seniors’ homes like Copper Ridge Place come from Outside, said Mitchell.

The Liberals would like to see more Yukoners trained as nurses and counselors to fill these roles, he said.

The party plans to create promotional material and a touring road show, featuring local health-care professionals, to encourage more First Nation students to enter the professions.

The Liberals are also promising to develop a sustainable human resources strategy for the health-care sector.

It’s going to cost money to achieve these goals, said Mitchell. “But you have to spend money to save money in the long term.”

And it will cost less than the two $28-million hospitals being built in Dawson and Watson Lake by the Yukon Party, without studies to even see if this type of hospital was needed, he said.

Instead of treating the symptoms, a healthy health-care model is preventative and addresses the root causes, said Mitchell.

“We need to move beyond the current emergency room-focused system of treatment to one that emphasizes inter-professional, collaborative practice - not only to decrease the strain on our hospitals, but also to better serve Yukoners seeking primary health care,” added nurse, teacher and Liberal candidate Colleen Wirth.

“We need more comprehensive treatment of the whole individual.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at