Public health officials report decreased wait times for mental health, addictions services

The demand for mental health support by Nova Scotians has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, public health officials say wait times have improved.

Despite an overall increase in demand for support during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nova Scotia’s public health officials report decreased wait times for mental health and addictions services.

In an update to the province’s standing committee on health, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) said wait times for non-urgent cases have decreased 42 per cent for adults and 43 per cent for children and youth. This year alone, mental health intake teams across the province have completed more than 10,000 patient assessments and responded to more than 26,000 calls.

“On average we see 79 per cent of adults and 75 per cent of children with non-urgent needs within the 28-day standard,” said Samantha Hodder, senior director of mental health and addictions for the NSHA.

“We have set the standard of our response for urgent (cases) of seven days, and we routinely meet those 100 per cent of the time.”

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Hodder told elected officials on Tuesday that reducing wait times is a “continuous quality improvement piece,” and it continues to be open to new partnerships and ideas that will help it cut back on delays even further.

Improvements to date, she added, are attributable to a multitude of factors, including increased funding, expanded virtual care, better scheduling and good data collection.

Some committee members, however, questioned how closely the positive statistics reflect the reality experienced by Nova Scotians who access mental health services in the province — particularly, after the initial call is made to the primary mental health service line.

“It doesn’t match the reports that someone might get an initial phone call and get off a waitlist, but that they then sit on a long wait time for actual care,” said Barbara Adams, PC MLA for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.

“The reports we’re getting is that ‘Yes, I might get called within the 28 days, then I’m getting a half-hour visit every two weeks and I was ready to take my own life.'”

In rural Cape Breton, non-urgent appointment wait times can last up to three months, added NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre Kendra Coombes, and seven months in industrial Cape Breton.

Maureen Brennan, director of mental health and addictions for the IWK Health Centre, said the number of appointments received by patients is determined by each patient’s needs, as part of an “evidence-based triage” system. Those with emergency needs would receive “immediate access to the right level of care.”

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It’s a system that doesn’t impress all Nova Scotians; a recent report released by the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers found that social workers are largely dissatisfied with the current approach to mental health and addictions.

As it stands, it said, there is currently too much emphasis on a biomedical model, which treats symptoms of individuals, which researchers say is more of a one-size-fits-all approach.

During the pandemic, the NSHA said calls to its mental health crisis line have spiked roughly 30 per cent. In December, the Nova Scotia government announced $1.6 million in new funding, to be distributes as grants to organizations that support mental health services and initiatives for residents.

Premier-designate Iain Rankin campaigned on a promise to “increase access to mental health services, especially in the school setting and in our collaborative care centres,” and to expand digital health services across the province.

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In a Tuesday statement, he told Global News, his focus right now is on cabinet appointments, but once he’s sworn in, he expects “ministers to work with their departments, partners and service providers to identify how we can move these policies ahead and make a positive difference for Nova Scotians.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in three Canadians will experience mental health issues or mental health illness in any given year.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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