Community mental health workers cut

Ines Hartmann saves lives. She's been doing this for three years, ever since her rural mental health consultant position was created. But on March 31, funding runs out.

Ines Hartmann saves lives.

She’s been doing this for three years, ever since her rural mental health consultant position was created.

But on March 31, funding runs out.

The Yukon government is closing its Mental Health Services offices in Dawson City and Haines Junction.

Mental Health’s early psychosis-intervention program, which has helped more than 50 families and individuals over the last few years, is also being axed.

And so is Mental Health’s complex-case program, set up to help clients struggling with mental health issues in the justice system.

“I don’t understand how the government can cut something we have so little of in the first place,” said Jill (not her real name). Jill is one of Hartmann’s clients in Watson Lake, who asked to remain anonymous.

Working out of Haines Junction, Hartmann visited Watson Lake and Old Crow at least once a month.

“And it’s so important to see someone face-to-face,” said Jill.

“Over the phone, it’s hard to explain things and it’s too emotional,” she said.

“You need that human contact, to build up trust.

“And they need to see you, to assess how serious it is.”

Two years ago, Jill went through severe trauma in her life.

“And being in a small town, I didn’t know who to turn to,” she said.

A friend suggested Jill call Mental Health Services.

That’s when she met Hartmann.

“I couldn’t have coped if I didn’t have someone who was professional,” she said.

“And I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d be really messed up.

“I was close to suicide.”

Hartmann gave Jill homework – little tasks that sometimes seemed impossible, like getting out of bed and getting dressed or going out for a walk once a day.

Hartmann “got me living again,” said Jill, who is now back at work and stable.

But there are a lot more people in Watson Lake who need help, she said.

“This town is dysfunctional.

“It is not a good, healthy town.”

There are several people struggling with bipolar and schizophrenia, she said.

Hartmann had more than 45 clients in Watson Lake, Haines Junction and Old Crow.

It takes years to build up trust with these clients, said one rural mental health nurse – with at least as many clients – who asked to remain anonymous.

“When I first started, clients asked me how long I would be here,” said the nurse.

“And I said, ‘As long as you want.’

“Now, I have to say, ‘You were right, the services are being cut,’ and hurt them again.”

For someone struggling with schizophrenia, a sudden change in services is huge, said the nurse.

“People will be drawn back in their recovery process.”

And Whitehorse General Hospital’s scant mental health facilities will be swamped, said the nurse.

Mental Health staff learned about the cuts in the summer.

But an internal memo announcing the closures wasn’t circulated until Wednesday.

“The Mental Health Services offices in Haines Junction and Dawson City will close as of March 31,” says the memo.

Until then, “rural Mental Health Services nurses Brenda Baxter and Hartmann will work with clients and support staff in communities to prepare for the changes.”

After April 1, “an itinerant nurse will travel approximately every two months to communities where there are clients with serious mental illness.”

And by 2012, services will be cut further.

“Beginning April 2012, a nurse will travel to rural Yukon communities, where there are clients with serious mental illness, approximately four times a year.”

Mental health services are already inadequate in the communities, said Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition mental health committee co-chair Sue Edelman.

“And one in 10 of us have mental health issues, so you better believe this is worthy of discussion.”

“I feel very, very sorry for my clients,” said the nurse.

Without rural mental health offices, all referrals will go through Whitehorse.

Referrals that were taking between two to three weeks in the communities will take about six months in Whitehorse, said the nurse.

The rural mental health nurses “did fabulous work in our community,” said a health-service provider in one of the communities, who also asked to remain anonymous.

The government has been trying to keep the cuts “hush hush,” she said.

“But these closures will have really heavy-duty repercussions.

“We need expansion, not cutbacks.”

The mental health nurses “broke down isolation, and made a huge difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Community health-service providers don’t have training to deal with the symptoms of mental health, said the worker.

“We need these professionals.”

There is already a long wait to get help, and “now that will be even longer.”

Seven jobs are being axed in Mental Health, including the housing co-ordinator position.

Three years ago, the territory received federal funding to expand its mental health services.

That’s when Mental Health offices were set up in Dawson City and Haines Junction, and when the early psychosis and complex-case programs were created.

One man, helped by the complex-case program, was being admitted to Whitehorse General Hospital an average of 52 times a year. (It costs about $1,500 a day to stay at the hospital.)

After entering the complex-case program, his yearly hospital admissions dropped to zero.

Geared toward young people who have experienced a first psychotic incident or break from reality, the early psychosis intervention program had similar successes, with over 50 clients.

This program is so important because the sooner you start treatment and work with the family, “the better their life is and the more chance they have of becoming a successful member of society,” said Edelman.

“If you don’t intervene, what can go wrong will go wrong.”

These were pilot projects, said Health spokesperson Patricia Living.

“People were aware the projects had a lifespan and were intended to end in March.”

The problem with pilot projects is they build expectations, said Edelman.

And the Yukon doesn’t have a watchdog, she said.

“So programs come and go.”

The Yukon is the only jurisdiction in Canada without a Canadian Mental Health Association office.

“Even Nunavut has one,” said Edelman.

The idea was that once the federal funding ran out, the territory would pick up the cost and continue the programs, said the nurse.

“All three programs together cost $500,000,” she said.

But the territory hasn’t come up with the money.

“It depends on what your priorities are,” said Living.

Mental Health director Marie Fast did not return calls by press time.

“I have no faith in my government,” said Jill.

“I feel they are making more people suffer and just don’t care.

“And a lot of people in government don’t realize how hard it is for people, when they’re down, to get back up and become a viable person who can contribute to society and work.”

Jill credits Hartmann for her full recovery.

But those in her community who still need help won’t be so lucky, she said.

“The government should be embarrassed they cannot support their own people,” said Jill.

“This is not just one group of people, it’s everybody from all walks of life.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at