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Mental health workers worth the wait

More than 50 years after its southern neighbours, the Yukon is regulating psychiatric nurses. "When I came here in 1973, I couldn't work as a psychiatric nurse," said Florence Roberts, who'd studied in BC.

More than 50 years after its southern neighbours, the Yukon is regulating psychiatric nurses.

“When I came here in 1973, I couldn’t work as a psychiatric nurse,” said Florence Roberts, who’d studied in BC.

“I had lived in Alberta and Toronto and was able to work as a nurse.”

So the Yukon’s unwillingness to recognize her training came as a surprise.

Roberts ended up in the service industry.

“I enjoyed working with people,” she said on Wednesday morning. “But I would have liked to work as a psychiatric nurse, as I was trained.”

“We’ve had registered psychiatric nurses who’ve wanted to go up to the Yukon to work,” said College of Registered Psychiatric Nurses of Manitoba executive director Annette Osted. “But if they can’t be recognized for their scope of practice, without registration or regulation, they said, ‘I’m not going up there.’”

Manitoba has been educating psychiatric nurses since 1920.

“But we’ve only had legislation governing the profession since 1960,” said Osted.

Saskatchewan has been regulating psychiatric nurses since 1948, she added.

The Yukon introduced similar legislation this week.

Community Services consumer services director Fiona Charbonneau did not know why it took the Yukon five decades to introduce legislation similar to Manitoba’s.

“I don’t have an answer for that question,” she said.

“But we’ve been working on it for a number of years and have received a lot of great support for this,” said Charbonneau.

“It’s going to make a difference in terms of how mental health services are provided.”

Part of the holdup, in terms of recognizing psychiatric nurses, may be stigma-related, said Osted.

“The stigma against mental health and emotional difficulties is still an issue, and as professionals we feel it,” she said.

“Not all doctors consider psychiatrists real doctors, because of their work in mental health.

“And it’s the same with registered psychiatric nurses, sometimes there’s been stigma and discrimination because of who we work with - we share the stigma and discrimination that our clients and patient population has felt much more seriously all their lives.”

A 2004 University of Manitoba study found that 50 per cent of people occupying medical/surgical beds have a diagnosable mental illness and/or addiction, said Osted.

“That’s significant,” she said. “If we did more to prevent some of the mental health problems, we’d be doing more to prevent some of the physical health problems and so the economic impact on our overall health system would be felt.”

In the Yukon, the government is allowed to jail mentally ill patients even if they don’t have charges. (In 1993, the Yukon Party designated Whitehorse Correctional Centre a hospital “for custody, treatment or assessment of an accused,” pursuant to section 672.1 of the criminal code.)

“That’s what we were doing in the 1890s,” said Osted.

“We were putting people with mental health issues in the jails - interesting - that’s how little our system has evolved, to a certain degree.”

In Manitoba, psychiatric nurses work in a variety of settings. In general hospitals psychiatric nurses work in the psychiatric units and consult in medical surgical units. When someone is undergoing major surgery the nurses supply advice to the patient and staff on how to approach the situation, and work with the patient’s family.

They also work in the emergency department. Manitoba just made it mandatory that all emergency departments in the province have registered psychiatric nurses.

“A lot of people with mental health problems end up in emergency because we don’t have enough community resources,” said Osted.

Psychiatric nurses also work in corrections, in school divisions, in crisis-stabilization units and as members of the mobile crisis team. They also work in personal care homes and with geriatrics, providing some programming for people who have Alzheimer’s or dementias.

Psychiatric nurses specialize in emotional and mental health and illness, said Osted. While a registered nurse’s knowledge lies in physical health.

But in Canada, anybody can work in mental health, she added. “You don’t need special education, which is unfortunate because it denigrates the needs of the people who have the problems.”

Practical nurses, for example, don’t have any mental health training, said Osted.

“We want the public to know and understand who a psychiatric nurse is, and what they really do,” said Charbonneau.

“And I think the public will benefit from more specialized care from this group of health-care providers who were not previously recognized in the Yukon.”

“That registration changes the whole picture for qualified mental health workers for the Yukon,” said Osted.

Now, at least, the territory is recognizing psychiatric nurses, said Roberts.

Mental health has changed so much over the years, she said.

“And it’s about time we got psychiatric facilities here.

“It’s about time the territory grew into its own problems.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at