The Yukon NDP says it will cut wait times for mental health care in the Yukon in half within two years.
The promise is one of a string of announcements the opposition party made this week ahead of the territorial election Nov. 7.
An NDP government will spend an extra $2.5 million to support recruitment of mental health support workers, Jan Stick announced Tuesday.
“We will invest in mental health professionals including psychiatric nurses, social work professionals and other support workers,” she said.
Stick, the candidate for Riverdale South and current health critic, referenced comments made in the legislature in April by Health Minister Mike Nixon, who said wait times for help from the territory’s mental health services branch can be up to 48 hours for someone in crisis.
“These people are significantly potentially suicidal and have deteriorated so significantly they are virtually not functioning and have minimal or no supports,” the minister said at the time.
Those whose situation is considered less serious can wait up to two weeks, he said. The wait time for a full mental health assessment is up to eight months.
The Department of Health and Social Services confirmed those numbers are still accurate.
Spokesperson Pat Living said a person who was threatening suicide immediately would be sent to Whitehorse General Hospital.
Those wait times need to be brought down, Stick said.
“People are waiting for months to get in for an assessment, to see a specialist. People from the communities are sometimes driving hundreds of kilometres to come in for an opportunity to meet with someone to have that assessment,” she said.
“Those who can’t stay at home and suffer while their conditions worsen.”
The one statistic that has gone down is the wait time for alcohol and drug counselling. That used to be about nine to 12 months, according to the NDP.
Now it is closer to three to four weeks, Living said. That’s because the department opened the new Sarah Steele building last month, she said.
The new building is larger than its predecessor, has more counselling staff and accepts people into residential drug and alcohol treatment at any time. That’s different from the old model where programming alternated between genders and had fixed start dates, making the potential wait time longer.
When it comes to the communities, the mental health services branch has two rural offices staffed by mental health nurses in Dawson and Haines Junction. Those nurses travel to other communities to see patients.
Recruitment is often cited as a hurdle to getting more medical professionals to the territory.
“I think when we’re talking about communities we need to look at what supports we’re going to provide staff living in the communities. Whether it’s appropriate housing (or) adequate time off so they’re not stuck in the community working 24/7 without breaks,” Stick said.
“So that’s part of that whole health-care plan, providing good services to staff so that they are willing to come and feel supported to stay in those communities.”
Stick said people with mental illnesses are too often ending up in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. The Whitehorse hospital has a secure medical unit for people with mental illnesses, but health officials have long maintained that it is not appropriate to hold people involved in the justice system, including those who have been found not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial.
Stick said changing that is “certainly something we have to look at. We also have to make sure that it’s supported by staff that are able to address the issues of those individuals.”
With money allocated and a definitive timeline, the NDP’s promise to improve mental health services is more concrete than some of the other promises it made this week.
The party says it will increase assessments for people who may have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and support individuals living with FASD, but neither of those promises come with extra money or a specific plan yet.
Rod Snow, the party’s candidate for Riverdale North, said both promises are principles that would guide an NDP government.
The party is promising to help address the over-representation of people with FASD in the justice system by adding an amendment to the territory’s Corrections Act “that says, in effect, corrections staff have to accommodate the disability,” Snow said.
Meanwhile, Yukon MP Larry Bagnell’s private member’s bill that would amend the Criminal Code to recognize FASD as a mitigating factor in sentencing goes for second reading next week.
Snow said he has been working with Murray Rankin, the federal NDP’s House leader, who told him the NDP caucus would support the bill.
Earlier this week the Yukon NDP also put out a statement saying it supports a “housing-first” approach to ending homelessness.
That’s the idea that people need to have a safe roof over their head before they can tackle other issues in their lives.
Similar to the party’s statements around FASD, the idea is a guiding principle but the NDP has pledged no specific plans or money for housing-first ideas, said Kate White, the candidate for Takhini-Kopper King and current Yukon Housing Corporation critic.
White said it’s too soon to say if an NDP government would support a housing project proposed by Yukon’s Challenge Disability Resource Group earlier this month that would include housing-first-style supportive units.
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