The provincial government launched a 10-year plan, A Pathway to Hope, to build a “comprehensive system” of mental health and addictions care for British Columbians in June 2019.
Over two years in, a new progress report from the province “confirms” people in B.C. are already receiving better access to mental health support.
"We are working hard to ensure people in B.C. get access to seamless, integrated mental health and substance use care that can be found quickly and close to home," says Sheila Malcolmson, minister of Mental Health and Addictions, in a release. “Step-by-step, we are transforming mental health and substance use care in B.C.”
A Pathway to Hope started out by focusing on a three-year plan to address four priority needs: supporting Indigenous-led solutions; improving wellness for children, youth, and young adults; saving lives through better substance use care; and improving access to quality care overall.
To support Indigenous-led solutions, the province, the First Nations Health Council, and Indigenous Services Canada allocated $20.5 million to 41 new First Nations-led mental health and wellness initiatives in 166 communities across British Columbia.
Meanwhile, the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) funded 147 healing initiatives that focus a person’s connection to the land. The aim is to increase the types of treatment options available to First Nations by providing land-based, family-based, and group-based services.
“A traditional healer’s network has been providing support to communities by revitalizing traditional teachings and practices,” says FNHA. “The creation of family-based gatherings has led to the development of a framework and creation of a pilot land-based healing program to respond to intergenerational trauma and wellness needs in communities. Cultural mentorship programs, men’s land-based healing programming and youth-based programs have also been successfully implemented.”
‘Many gaps continue’
Despite these moves, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Vice-President Mariah Charleson calls the progress report “shocking.”
“It seems like a very common thing for the government to release these documents stating all the work that they've done,” she says. “But the reality is, many, many gaps continue to exist society-wide.”
For Charleson, it’s too soon to say that progress has been made.
“We're seeing people from our communities die as a result of drug overdose,” she says. “We're seeing our family members living homeless – living that lifestyle with mental health issues. We see it firsthand. So, to me, not enough has been done yet.”
The BC Coroners Service says that between January and June 2021, there were 1,011 suspected drug toxicity deaths. It’s the highest ever recorded in the first six months of a calendar year and represents a 34 per cent increase over the number of deaths recorded between January and June 2020.
Drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in the province for people aged 19 to 39, and continues to take a “disproportionate number of Indigenous people’s lives,” says FNHA.
First Nations people accounted for nearly 15 per cent of the toxic drug deaths in 2020, despite only representing 3.3 per cent of B.C.’s population.
“That should be setting alarm bells off for leaders and policy makers,” says Charleson. “We've seen the government throw billions of dollars at COVID-19. We need to see that same type of approach when it comes to the opioid crisis and the mental health crisis that we're witnessing.”
The province’s progress report says it has escalated its response to the poisoned drug crisis through A Pathway to Hope.
“In the past two years, B.C. has expanded access to take-home naloxone kits to 350 new sites, more than doubled the number of overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites - with 1.37 million visits and 7,082 overdoses survived at these sites with no deaths - and introduced Canada's first policy on prescribed safer supply,” says the Ministry of Health.
The FNHA says that the province has been successful in supporting Indigenous-led solutions, but the need for better access to mental health and substance use services is “growing.”
“Mental health stressors have also been amplified throughout the COVID-19 epidemic and the increase in substance use to cope has been exponential,” says FNHA. “Additionally, the reveal of the 215 grave sites in Kamloops has led to an outpouring of re-traumatization across Indigenous communities as the intergenerational effects of residential schools continues to affect Indigenous people in B.C.”
The FNHA says that access to capital funding that supports First Nations design and creates local wellness and healing centres with a focus on culture and teachings would be “a tremendous asset.”
“Culture and ceremony need to be at the forethought of all healing work planning and implementation, as communities have repeatedly identified the connection to traditional wellness to be the most important aspect of their healing journey,” says FNHA.
Surge in calls to crisis line
Cindy McAnerin, executive assistant and advocate for the KUU-US Crisis Line Society in Port Alberni, says that while things are beginning to improve through broader awareness and government funding, “large gaps” in mental health services continue to exist.
According to the progress report, developments have been made towards establishing Foundry centres, which provide youth with access to mental health care, substance use services, primary care, social services and youth and family peer support, all in one location. Foundry centres are open in 11 communities, including Campbell River and Victoria but have yet to make their way to the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“Port Alberni doesn’t have anything like that,” says McAnerin. “We definitely still see gaps in services and facilities for people [in the region].”
In June 2020, Foundry launched virtual services to support young people and their families through the Foundry BC app, which was co-created by youth and the Province.
“This service is filling a large gap and reaching youth that are unable to access our centres from across B.C.,” says Steve Mathias, Foundry executive director. “It is ensuring we achieve our vision of reaching young people early, to help address small problems before they become bigger ones."
McAnerin says that KUU-US’ crisis line receives around 1,000 to 1,2000 calls every month.
The call volume almost doubled after the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, she says
Elizabeth Newcombe is the executive director of the Vancouver Island Crisis Society in Nanaimo and says she’s proud of the work that’s been done to enhance the province’s crisis line network over the past two years.
“We've worked very hard to align all our standards together,” says Newcombe. “We’re improving service in the crisis line world.”
Following the emergence of COVID-19, the progress report identified that crisis line call volumes and demand increased. Newcombe says the Vancouver Island Crisis Society’s call volume alone rose 9 per cent between April 2020 to March 2021.
“We were fielding a lot of extra calls,” she says. “Ten per cent of our call volume was COVID-19 related.”
To help respond to the increased demand, the Ministry of Health allocated a one-time funding of $690,000 to provincial crisis lines in July 2020.
Looking ahead, the province acknowledges that “more must be done to address Indigenous-specific racism in mental health and substance use services” and says it will continue to invest in building mental health and addictions services that work for everyone in B.C.
“As A Pathway to Hope progresses, British Columbians who are experiencing mental health and substance use challenges and their families will see further improvements in access and quality of care as the system strengthens and evolves,” says the ministry.