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Dayna Barnes: We need mental health supports for Nova Scotia youth everywhere and all the time

KJIPUKTUK Halifax) In February 2019 the province of Nova Scotia announced a plan to fund the expansion of a mental health outreach program in schools for youth in the northern region of the province. The plan includes  $3.4 million over four years to support the expansion of in-school programs.

This is a great starting point in terms of mental health resources in an under-serviced province, but is it enough? 

In the announcement, MLA Randy Delorey noted that it provided an opportunity for youth to connect with services and supports before their conditions worsen. However with no school in the summer months, what happens now? Are youth expected to locate resources and connections online or via emergency room visits? 

The province has openly acknowledged that early intervention, supports and accessible programs are essential to address mental health needs before they become long-term problems– but are they focusing on ‘band-aid’, simple, affordable, easy program implementation rather than investing in programs and services that are youth focused?

Look around your rural community, outside of school, organized sports and of course amazing public libraries (who are also under funded). Are there any established youth centres, programs or services offering drop in spaces, programs, services or mental health supports? Do you see outreach workers connecting with youth? Do you even see youth out and about?

It seems that policy makers are placing an overreliance on schools because it is where students and youth are easily found, and it provides the option of informal accessibility. However, school can be a very vulnerable place for some of the most in need students, thus, accessing supports may not always be the safest or most comfortable option. On the brink of a mental health crisis many youths may not be making it to school, leaving their mental health needs to their families to identify and address.

Ok, but the province has invested in a plethora of online resources—right? And youth these days are technically savvy. Again,when you  face a mental health crisis is a list of online resources, crisis phone numbers and statistics stating youth are not alone, the best the province can offer?

Since the 2015 amalgamation of nine health authorities, the Department of Health and Wellness  announced that the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) would begin a planning project to solve problems in the health system, including mental health and addiction treatments.  The original deadline was 2016. Now, 2019, we have yet to be given a comprehensive mental health and addictions action plan, let alone see community programs and services established. 

In February 2019 the NSHA released the report, Milestones on Our Journey, and although there is promise within the goals of establishing supportive mental health community programs, there has been little action or program implementation past planning, reviews and consultations. Are we hoping to plan the problem away? 

According to the Canadian Association of Social Workers (2005) code of ethics, we social workers are committed to the pursuit of social justice. This means that youth must have access to resources to meet their basic human needs.

And if we, as a province, are recognizing a mental health crisis brewing, then it is our duty to place pressure on the department to implement community level mental health supports, such as

community outreach workers, youth drop in centers, support groups for families and those living with mental illness. It also means that we need community mental health supports outside of educational or hospital settings and a comprehensive strategy to transform our mental health services. We can start by involving youth in mental health information sessions in each region, by adopting youth mental health action committees.

The Nova Scotia government is writing off community mental health as a future problem.  But if youth are facing mental health crises now, how can we expect our future generations to fix a broken system when they themselves may be broken as a result? The cost of inaction will be more expensive as vulnerable youth may find themselves entangled in the justice system or emergency rooms, then on waiting-lists; all of which is costly for systems to maintain, as well as the toll it takes on the individual.

Our government’s inaction is socially unjust and will continue to create inequalities across the province, where some of the most vulnerable youth will go unnoticed and underserviced. This undoubtedly erodes their trust of social services and exacerbates any anxiety or mental illnesses youth which are known to have lasting impacts on a wide range of social issues.

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One Comment

  1. Dayna,
    Thank you for this article, and for acknowleding the role that public libraries play in rural communities. As manager of a rural library, I see every day the impact of our facility on the mental health of our patrons. Our staff encounters many people experiencing mental health and addictions challenges, homelessness, food insecurity, health issues – which makes sense, when you think about it, because libraries are free, welcoming, supportive, and confidential. Staff form strong bonds with patrons and provide support during tough times (not only by locating useful books, but by connecting people to community resources). Libraries help keep older people connected, active, and involved, offering free fitness classes, social activities, and a caring environment. We work in our communities to meet needs in schools and seniors’ homes. We provide safe, nurturing places for children and teens. Essentially, we strive to help individuals empower themselves – and our work has a positive ripple effect in our communities.

    Several years ago, I requested Mental Health First Aid training for the staff at my branch. My boss responded by seeking funding to provide the training to all staff in our library system. This year, I’m requesting dementia-care training, as we’re seeing more and more patrons in the early stages of dementia. None of these programs are standard training for library workers province-wide, and have to be creatively funded. Imagine what would happen if the Province recognized the incredible existing support network that libraries represent, and actually funded them as such? I envision:

    * Standard Mental Health First Aid training for all library front-line staff
    * Standard Dementia-friendly training for all library front-line staff
    * Mental health outreach workers based in libraries (hugely impactful in rural areas which lack formal supports or public transportation to allow people to access supports in the nearest city).
    * Facilitation of community-based support groups
    * Confidential facilitation of access to online supports (privacy areas, and staff trained as navigators)

    The infrastructure exists, and library staff are already doing their best to provide support. If we were properly trained and adequately compensated, Nova Scotia would have a powerful community-based mental health network.

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