Sick minds often find solace in a bottle

People struggling with depression or schizophrenia often turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. “It’s a vicious cycle,” said mental health worker Rae-ann Dalgleish.

People struggling with depression or schizophrenia often turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said mental health worker Rae-ann Dalgleish. “People will self-medicate to briefly get rid of their symptoms.

“If it’s going to make your voices go away, temporarily elevate your mood or going to take care of your anxiety and panic attacks, people will fall into that trap.”

Dalgleish works with addicts on a daily basis at the Canadian Mental Health Association office in Prince George, British Columbia.

She runs the community navigator program connecting people who are mentally ill with housing and jobs.

She’s found it’s not just depression or anxiety that’s driving people to drink or do drugs. Sometimes it’s the very drugs people are prescribed for their mental illness that motivates them to use substances.

“A lot of psychotropic drugs have a host of side-effects,” said Dalgleish.

Lethargy, confusion, insomnia and even drooling are some of the things people are trying to escape when they take drugs or alcohol.

“I can understand where they’re coming from because I see these side-effects,” said Dalgleish. “They’re trying to function on a day-to-day level and they’re not feeling like themselves.”

In Prince George there has been a huge push to address both mental health and addictions issues, said Dalgleish. In this northern community of 80,000 both issues have become particularly prevalent in the last five to 10 years.

In 2008, the provincial government agreed to pay the organization $122,000 for a two-year pilot project to address mental health, homelessness and addictions in Prince George. At the same time, four other community navigator programs were being started in communities throughout British Columbia. In the first year alone, 900 individuals were assisted in finding homes, getting in touch with counsellors and trying to stay sober.

In the Yukon, the connection between addictions and mental health is only being marginally addressed.

For starters, the Canadian Mental Health Association doesn’t even have an office here.

Citizens in every province and territory in Canada, except the Yukon, have access to the non-profit organization that provides resources to people who are mentally ill, in addition to raising awareness about mental health.

It’s not for lack of need, said Ross Findlater. He used to be on the executive of the short-lived Canadian Mental Health Association Board that represented Yukoners from the early ‘90s until 2003.

“People lost energy with the organization,” he said. “We got frustrated with our efforts and it dwindled.”

The Yukon association, when it was in operation, was extremely small-scale. There was no office or paid staff, only volunteers. The organization was run out of a volunteer’s home and only had the resources to do minimal lobby work.

“Where we failed is that we had no representation from the government on our board,” said Findlater who now works with the Whitehorse Food Bank and Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

“For whatever reason, the government never got involved.”

Around the country, 60 to 80 per cent of Canadian Mental Health branches are funded by provincial and territorial grants. That funding includes money for staffing, programming and education.

That sort of funding was never available to people in the Yukon.

In 2003, the Yukon branch asked the government for core funding for office supplies and resources.

“The government told us we wouldn’t get the money. They would only photocopy stuff for us – that was their support to us,” said Findlater.

It became the breaking point for the group.

“We were talking about doling out money for paperclips and office supplies and the government had us doing all kinds of things to justify to bureaucrats the need for it,” said Findlater.

“It’s reasonable to justify why you need money, but this was just so silly.”

The government’s interest in working on mental health issues hasn’t increased much since that time, said Findlater.

“My opinion, is these days the government talks up a good community perception, but they’re not really involved in the community.”

The links between mental health, homelessness and addiction are glaring; he sees many gaps the government could be filling.

The Yukon needs supported housing for people with mental health issues, he said. It’s an idea that’s been toyed with since the early ‘80s.

“One reason that it never happened, that was used as an excuse, was that the numbers in the Yukon are too small,” he said.

“The thought was that we wouldn’t have enough clients to fill the program.”

Findlater disputes that.

“For adults, we’d certainly have enough clients. And it wouldn’t have to be a huge program.”

Even a day program for people suffering with less-serious mental illnesses would be of use.

“We spend all this money shipping people out to Alberta and BC hospitals for psychiatric treatment.”

In Ontario, putting someone in an outpatient program is one-seventh of the cost of keeping them in the hospital, said Findlater who worked in the mental health field in Ontario before moving to the Yukon.

In the Yukon, few programs or organizations exist to work with people who are mentally ill.

Many Rivers’ No Fixed Address Van reaches out to people living on the street, offering food, free counselling and clean needles six days a week. It’s a badly needed service, but one that’s seen as a quick fix. The nonprofit organization also offers in-house counselling on a sliding scale, giving free sessions to people who make less than $40,000 a year.

There’s also the Second Opinion Society which offers resources and support to people seeking alternative forms of psychiatric treatment.

But there’s no programming specifically targeting people with both addictions and mental health issues.

A well-funded Canadian Mental Health branch could be quite effective in the Yukon, said Findlater.

The British Columbia division of the Canadian Mental Health Association has considered taking the Yukon under its wing for the last two years. But a lack of funding and manpower has stood in the way, said BC president Bev Gutray.

They were looking at a model where Prince George could potentially look after services in the Yukon, she said.

That branch, in addition to offering the community navigator program, also offers 19 supported housing units to people who are homeless, life skills counsellors, vocational rehabilitation and a program that works with RCMP and emergency responders to improve service to people in a mental health crisis.

“People really do need these kinds of services, there’s no doubt,” said Gutray.

British Columbia hasn’t completely ruled out the option of opening a branch in Whitehorse.

“That may still be down the road.”

Contact Vivian Belik at