For Manitobans struggling with mental health and addiction issues, a glimmer of hope emerged in this week’s cabinet shuffle.
On Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister split the duties of the health portfolio to create a new ministry for mental health, wellness and recovery — a historic first for the province and a golden opportunity to address a long-suffering sector that has been plagued by poor access, insufficient co-ordination and inadequate funding.
Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon has been appointed to lead the department, the objective of which is to develop a provincial mental health and addictions strategy while addressing the psychological fallout from the pandemic. Ms. Gordon is the first Black person to hold a cabinet position in Manitoba and has experience in the health-care system as a former program director with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
It’s long past time mental health became a priority for this government; it’s unfortunate it took a pandemic to get us here.
When the Virgo report — an exhaustive review of Manitoba’s mental health and addictions services — was released in 2018, it described an overly complex, underfunded system that didn’t meet the community’s urgent needs.
Then-health minister Kelvin Goertzen likened addiction treatment services to a pinball machine, saying, "It’s difficult to get into the system and then, when you’re in the system, it’s difficult to navigate."
The Virgo report called for a "whole-system, multi-sectoral response" and outlined more than 130 recommendations to improve access to a wider range of supports, close treatment service gaps and address the specific needs of vulnerable populations, including children, youth and Indigenous people.
Government action over the last two years has been incremental. In 2019, it had acted on only 26 recommendations, including opening five Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine (RAAM) clinics in response to the methamphetamine crisis, doubling the number of treatment beds for women at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, adding six in-patient mental health beds at the Health Sciences Centre, reducing barriers to anti-craving drugs such as naltrexone, and investing in community youth mental health and addiction treatment hubs.
Still, 2019 statistics from the Canadian Institute for Health Information showed Manitoba had among the lowest number of psychologists by population, with only 19.7 practitioners per 100,000 residents. Alberta, by comparison, had 91.2 psychologists per 100,000 people.
Critics have reproached the Pallister government for its slow response to an immediate crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have finally created a sense of urgency on the file.
Substance use and mental health issues have been increasing among the general population over the last nine months.
“It’s difficult to get into the system and then, when you’re in the system, it’s difficult to navigate.” — Kelvin Goertzen, former health minister
In a recent Probe Research poll commissioned by the Free Press, 71 per cent of Manitobans reported a decline in their mental health and heightened levels of anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic. A poll by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use found 18 per cent of respondents consumed more alcohol than usual during stay-home orders.
Klinic Community Health has expanded its crisis services to seven days a week to meet growing demand, and the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba has seen a marked uptick in calls to its help line.
Manitobans were struggling before the pandemic, and government officials need to act quickly if the looming "echo pandemic" of mental health issues is to be avoided.
The framework of a provincial strategy has already been laid out by the Virgo report, and the appointment of Ms. Gordon to the new portfolio is a significant gesture. Whether it comes with the necessary funding and political will remains to be seen.