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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read