Lawyers point out potential priorities for Saskatchewan’s first minister for addiction and mental health.
Swift Current MLA Everett Hindley won the title in November – an addition to the portfolio for rural and remote health and seniors.
“It shows how important this area is to our government,” Hindley said in an interview with Global News last month.
“It is a subject that we will be very focused on in the future.”
While Hindley said he doesn’t have a specific to-do list yet, addiction and psychiatrists have highlighted a few priority areas.
Response to addiction crisis
The first step is fundamental: keep people alive.
Overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Saskatchewan, more than quadrupling since 2010. As of December 1, the Saskatchewan coroner had recorded 122 confirmed and 201 suspected deaths from overdose.
Vidya Reddy, an education specialist with AIDS programs in South Saskatchewan, said the department should cut those statistics.
“It’s a completely preventable cause of death,” said Reddy.
“Curbing addiction and substance use is much more of a challenge, but we can definitely, definitely … reverse the overdose crisis.”
Reddy nodded to the provincial naloxone distribution program, but said overdose prevention agencies (OPS) were the best way forward.
OPS are like temporary, less sophisticated Monitored Consumption Points (SCS) that can be set up quickly, Reddy said.
He said they need to be set up across the province as a stopgap solution to the crisis.
“Then we can give the people who are dealing with the challenges of addiction a fair chance to overcome them,” Reddy said.
In the last provincial budget, the government refused to fund the only SCS in Saskatoon. The sites have been shown to save lives and connect people with appropriate treatment, according to Health Canada.
Local advocates have expressed frustration that the government will not invest in the evidence-based strategy despite claiming that responding to addiction problems is a priority.
“We have to look at all the different options that are out there,” said Hindley.
“I look forward to hearing more information about this and that will help us make our future decisions, but yes, I can understand the confusion.”
Mental health crisis prevention
The head of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Saskatoon hopes the province will move to a preventive approach.
“This move to identify mental health as part of a ministerial responsibility hopefully signals some investment in our community mental health system.” said Faith Bodnar, general manager of CMHA Saskatoon.
“We need to look at all parts of the mental health system and support in our community and put the clock back on so we can be proactive.”
Bodnar said emergency response measures are crucial for those struggling with addiction, mental illness, or both, but the province needs support before people get into crisis.
“Just having more beds won’t solve the whole problem,” she said, highlighting long waits for treatment.
Education, solid income support and affordable housing are important building blocks for well-being, said Bodnar.
“We need to look at housing as a primary way to help people stabilize their lives,” she said.
“Many people with mental illness and mental health needs live in very precarious, unstable and often very unsafe homes.”
“The government is there to support”
Both Bodnar and Reddy praised the province for focusing on addiction and mental illness.
Hindley said he has started consulting with stakeholders and is keen to take their advice.
“They are the ones doing all the heavy lifting and the government is there to support that as much as possible,” he said.
He noted that the province invested a record $ 435 million in responding to mental health and addiction in its latest budget.
“That being said, we know there is more work to be done as there are still very disheartening stories at times,” he said.
“I think you will see that this will continue to be an important source of investment for the government ahead of the provincial budget next spring.”