Mental health sufferers hung out to dry

When Andrea Underwood heard about recent cuts to Mental Health Services she "almost cried. At the end of March, the department is closing its rural mental health offices and axing seven staff, including its housing co-ordinator.

When Andrea Underwood heard about recent cuts to Mental Health Services she “almost cried.”

At the end of March, the department is closing its rural mental health offices and axing seven staff, including its housing co-ordinator.

“I think it’s appalling,” said Underwood, who worked as a mental health consultant with the department for more than two years.

Mental Health Services “is already way, way understaffed,” she said.

When Underwood left the department in the spring her clients “didn’t have sufficient support.

“There were too few staff and too many clients,” she said.

“We were spread way too thin.”

Despite the problems, the job at the branch was the highlight of Underwood’s working career.

“I’ve never worked with a more dedicated group of people,” she said.

“They cared about their clients hugely.

“And we were all in the same boat, trying to get things done with no money.”

The most recent cuts target community mental health consultants, as well as the early psychosis intervention program and the complex-case program.

Both programs are a great loss, said Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health chair Dr. John Higenbottam.

“With the early psychosis initiative, the hope is, if you do all the right things when someone has their first episode of something, like schizophrenia, it will reduce the likelihood they will break down and require rehospitalization,” he said.

“So, from a preventative point of view, that’s an important program.”

Since its creation more than two years ago, the early psychosis program has helped more than 50 Yukon clients.

“It comes down to how the government decides to spend its money,” said Higenbottam.

When government health departments get into financial problems, the money tends to be taken out of community programs and put toward acute care, he said.

“But when you cut these sorts of services, you just increase the likelihood these clients are going to end up in emergency departments.

“And it costs the government more in the long term.”

The complex case program, also on the chopping block, helped mental health clients struggling in the Justice system.

One man, helped by the complex-case program, was being admitted to Whitehorse General Hospital an average of 52 times a year, costing the health-care system approximately $1,500 a day.

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

Underwood, who worked in probations before moving to the branch, had many clients with mental health issues.

“And when these people end up in jail there are major costs as well,” said Higenbottam.

The early psychosis intervention and complex-case management programs were set up to stop clients with mental health issues from spiraling out of control.

When they’re axed, the Whitehorse General Hospital and the Whitehorse Correctional Centre will feel the fallout, said Underwood.

Hospitalizations run several thousand dollars a day, she said.

And that doesn’t include ambulance services or trips Outside.

“People are sent from the territory to Alberta hospitals at a mind-boggling cost,” said Underwood.

Last year, when she left the department, Underwood had a dream.

With three other partners, she bought Johnson’s Crossing Lodge to house and support mental health clients and offer them vocational training.

When people are hurting, they often try to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol, said Underwood.

Distanced from Whitehorse, the lodge would help clients stay away from these substances “that blur their picture,” she said.

The complex has five units, as well as a consulting room and staff include a nurse, a trauma counsellor and a justice of the peace.

Underwood has been ready for clients since early fall.

And the Yukon Review Board has recommended clients be sent to the lodge.

But so far, the rooms have sat empty.

Again, it comes down to money.

“They don’t have the funding to send people here,” she said.

Recently, Underwood learned one of her former mental health clients had been evicted and was back at the Salvation Army shelter, surrounded by people who will feed his addictions.

He would be a perfect candidate for Johnson’s Crossing.

But the government won’t act until it’s too late, she said.

Underwood suspects her former client will hit rock bottom and end up being sent to Alberta at an enormous cost -“in the many hundreds of thousands.

“They don’t spend money on mental health clients until they’re forced to,” she said.

“At which point, the client is in crisis and has already spiraled out of control.

“It’s so shortsighted.”

The government “is always trying to figure out ways to deal with these people,” said Health Minister Glenn Hart on Thursday.

But Mental Health is only one part of the puzzle, he said.

“There are also people with diabetes and people with disabilities.

“We can only help so many people.”

Hart is “confident his officials will figure out” how to keep some of the mental health cuts from happening.

“We are looking at keeping one of the (rural mental health offices) open,” he said.

And Hart hopes the early psychosis intervention program will continue, he said.

But it’s not just mental health that needs funding, said Hart.

“We’re seeing an increase in our population and an increase in physician claims, more children with autism and more hospital visits.

“We only have so much money, and I’m doing the best I can with what I got.”

The Council of Yukon First Nations, which has been studying mental health issues in the territory, had not been told about the cuts.

The mental health employees were told via internal government memo earlier this month, and the decision was not made public.

“I haven’t received notice yet,” said council Grand Chief Ruth Massie, on Thursday.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve been recommending an increase in Mental Health Services because we don’t think the existing services are sufficient,” she said.

“So it is very troubling to hear they are making cuts.”

On Thursday afternoon, Underwood was at Shipyards Park eating lunch prepared by her former clients.

She started the Shipyards program when she was still with the department, offering clients an opportunity to become part of the community by cooking for the public once a week at lunchtime.

It was a simple idea with a huge impact.

Underwood watched her clients’ self-worth draining slowly away as they struggled to perform well in a world that alienates them.

But when they started cooking at Shipyards, the change was instantaneous.

“It was night and day for these guys,” she said.

Suddenly they were part of the community.

And they fostered their own community and began mentoring one another, said Underwood.

“They are amazing people,” she said.

“And now, we are letting them down.”

The benefits from these programs are so obvious, she said.

One in 10 Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime.

“Which means all of us are affected by it,” said Underwood.

But there is a stigma attached to mental illness.

“People are loath to talk about it,” she said.

“Which means they don’t have a voice.

“And if they don’t have a voice, the government doesn’t listen to them.”

But we pay our governments’ salaries, said Underwood.

“And if they’re not doing what we think is right, we need to let them know.

“We have that power.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com