There was no shortage of concerns – along with some praise – last week at a public hearing in Hay River about the GNWT’s new Mental Health Act.
About 25 people attended the hearing held by the legislative assembly’s Standing Committee on Social Programs, which is reviewing the bill proposed by the Department of Health and Social Services.
Many people were from the healthcare field to offer suggestions on how the legislation could be improved, while others shared often-harrowing stories of dealing with mentally-ill people and the system designed to help them.
“The current act, there hasn’t been any significant changes since 1985, so that’s 30 years,” said Inuvik Boot Lake MLA Alfred Moses who is the chair of the committee. “I think the work that the committee is doing right now to get public input to update this bill, modernize it, is very important, not only for work that frontline staff do but it’s very important for people in the communities, people that are affected with mental health disorders.”
Moses listed several major areas of change.
“One is in the establishment of a review board,” he said, explaining it would hear complaints and concerns from patients, family members, friends of a patient, health professionals and others about services provided.
Moses said another major change would be the establishment of assisted community treatment plans, which currently don’t exist.
In addition, he said the proposed changes would mean a mandatory review of the Mental Health Act every five years.
“Obviously, we’re not going to get it right the first time, after doing these initial amendments to this act,” he said.
Father Don Flumerfelt of Our Lady of Assumption Roman Catholic Church said he liked the idea of a review board.
“It’s very much needed,” he said. “It is one of the things that’s been the gap in terms of what happens in the community and what happens in the treatment facility.”
Flumerfelt also suggested more thought be given to the criteria for risk assessment and the ability of police to apprehend someone who might be a danger to themselves or others.
“It’s better to err on the side of a risk and therefore apprehension, than not to,” he said.
Beatrice Lepine, a community resident, expressed support for the idea of assisted community treatment plans.
“I think that’s a good idea,” she said, although she added it also needs a cultural component.
Lepine also objected to the closure of the addictions treatment centre on the Hay River Reserve two years ago, noting that facility – the only one in the NWT – often dealt with people with mental health issues.
“I think the closure of that treatment centre was another blow to this community, not only to K’atlodeeche First Nation,” she said.
Lepine called for the treatment centre to be reopened – which was echoed by a number of other speakers – and for even more addictions treatment centres in the NWT.
Moses said the GNWT currently has contracts with four facilities in the south for alcohol and drug treatment of people from the NWT.
Others raised numerous concerns, including the need for more cultural and language input on the review board, more training, more facilities for people with mental health issues, more involvement of families in treatment, and more public education on the Mental Health Act.
One resident called for more confidentially, and also worried about people using the Mental Health Act for personal vendettas against others.
“It could happen. We watch a lot of soaps,” she said to laughter in the otherwise solemn public hearing.
Moses said the standing committee will use the input from its public hearings to develop possible amendments to the bill.
“We go back into house on Sept. 29 and we have about eight days to work and get this bill passed through, a very significant bill,” he said.
Moses said it’s unfortunate that the bill, which has already passed first and second readings, got to the standing committee so late in the legislative assembly that it’s trying to deal with it in the last few months.
“But I think that the committee is staying on top of this and hopefully we’ll see this passed in the fall sitting,” he said.
The consultations started on Aug. 24 and wrapped up last week.
Hay River was not originally on the list of communities to be visited by the standing committee.
Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen, a member of the standing committee, said its visit was due to the intervention of Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard.
Groenewegen said the standing committee seeks input from large and small communities whenever it travels for consultations, and communities are alternated.
“It’s always a balancing act, because we cannot go to all 33 communities every time we have a piece of legislation,” she said, noting Fort Smith was not a designated community to visit during hearings on a previous bill.