Additional mental health spending ‘a baby step’ but more is needed, N.B. advocate says

As part of Tuesday’s budget, New Brunswick announced a $7 million increase to mental health funding in the province.

One mental health advocate called the funding increase positive, but says much more is needed.

“This to me is a step in the right direction, but a baby step,” said Christa Baldwin of the Canadian Mental Health Association of New Brunswick.

“At this point, we really need a massive leap forward, not a baby step.”

Of the $7 million promised on Tuesday, just $3 million is slated to go directly to improving mental health and addiction services. Another $3.1 million will go towards professional care homes for children under 12 and addressing those with complex needs. The remainder will go towards the CMHA BounceBack program and to address psychologist shortages.

Baldwin says any funding increases are good, but says the province is still playing catchup after years of chronic underfunding.

“The budget needs to reflect mental health parity to physical health and that’s the massive leap forward needed,” she said.

Despite the increase in raw dollars going to mental health, the overall portion of the health budget allocated to mental health services remains flat, at around five per cent. The CMHA recommends that rate be doubled.

All in all, mental health services account for $125 million of the $3-billion health budget.

“Look at the mental health spending, $5 million to the RHAs (regional health authorities). That’s only half the amount that’s going to an American nuclear company for a technology that doesn’t exist. This is buying Band-Aids for bullet wounds,” said Green Leader David Coon, referencing the $10 million slated to go to ARC Nuclear for the development of small modular nuclear reactors this year.

“It’s trying to play catchup and what we need is transformation and serious investments.”

Over and above the mental-health-specific funding, there is also about $4 million going to the RCMP for drug prevention efforts.

Liberal MLA Rob McKee wonders if that spending could be better directed to addiction services.

“It’s for law enforcement to curb illegal activities,” McKee said. “It’s going to do nothing for treatment for people with addictions. People with addictions need treatment, not enforcement.”

Health minister Dorothy Shephard said the government is focused on a multi-departmental approach to mental health, with eight departments meeting regularly to try and tackle what she has referred to as a broken system.

“I think what’s important to note is there’s money all through government for mental health,” Shephard told reporters on Tuesday.

“We cannot approach mental health through one department.”

Shephard admitted that there may not be enough funding to accomplish everything she would like on the mental health file, but says she is accelerating parts of the Five Year Mental Health Action Plan. The focus on crisis and near-crisis care comes after the death of Lexi Daken.

Lexi, who was a Grade 10 student at Leo Hayes High School, was taken to the Doctor Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital on Feb. 18, after a guidance counselor noticed mental health issues. It took eight hours for Lexi to be assessed by a mental health professional.

According to her family, after those eight hours, a nurse told Lexi that calling a psychiatrist would take another two hours. The family said Lexi felt like a burden after she was asked something along the lines of, “Are you really going to make us call them?”

Lexi went home that night, receiving no immediate help. Less than a week later, she died by suicide.

Shephard said a plan to address crisis care is imminent.

“One of the points we really need to nail down is crisis care and near-crisis care. So by the end of this month, I’m going to have options from the RHAs, we’re going to take it to stakeholders and then we’re going to have announcements in April, she said.

Baldwin agrees that crisis care is extremely important, but notes a need for a more holistic approach to mental health treatment.

“The budget itself — does it lend to where we need to be?” Baldwin asked.

“No, it’s doesn’t and we won’t land there until we perceive mental health as a universal human right equal to physical health.”