ST. STEPHEN – “This current system couldn’t even help a single 16-year-old girl in her moment of crisis. That’s embarrassing, and I don’t know about you, but it makes me pretty damn mad.”
St. Stephen resident, and Life’s A Wreck podcaster, 22-year-old Kyle Moore is understandably angry as he discusses the healthcare system in New Brunswick; the very system that contributed to Lexi Daken, a 16-year-old New Brunswicker, taking her own life.
The abridged version of Daken’s story is in November of 2020, Daken attempted suicide. In February of 2021, Daken’s guidance counsellor recognized some of the same behaviours in the student, and ferried the 16-year-old directly to the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton. The counsellor waited with Daken for eight hours, before a nurse informed the pair a psychiatrist would not be available, to call one in after-hours would mean a wait of an additional two hours, and here’s phone number to call instead.
This was on a Thursday. By Tuesday, Daken was gone.
For Moore, the loss of Daken hit too close to home, and he has allied himself with Daken’s family to enact change in the province when it comes to how the health system addresses those with mental health issues.
“As someone who has struggled with my mental health my whole life, I see a lot of myself in Lexi,” said Moore. “I felt like a burden to those around me, and just facing each day seemed like climbing a mountain.
“I resonated with her pain, and to see the healthcare system fail her so miserably was hard to stomach. No family should lose a child, especially not after they (Daken) do the courageous thing and accept the help that was offered to them,” he added.
“When a person is ready for help, we have to triage in such a way that we give attention to that matter in that moment,” said Fundy-the-Isles, Saint John West MLA, Andrea Anderson-Mason. “Waiting six months isn’t acceptable.
“Just like when setting a broken bone, time is of the essence. It would be unacceptable to wait six months to set a broken bone, and it’s unacceptable in the mental health space as well,” she added.
It’s a topic never far from Anderson-Mason’s mind.
In fact, while sitting in the legislature recently, Anderson-Mason calculated exactly how much of the provincial healthcare budget goes to mental health programs.
The results were disheartening.
Anderson-Mason highlighted that in 2017/18, built into the healthcare transfer payments from the federal government was a clause stating a minimum of $10 million had to be spent on mental health programs. But in pulling the numbers, Anderson-Mason discovered that $10 million spend didn’t happen until the 2020/21 budget.
On average, between the budgetary years 2015/16 and 2020/21, 3.39 per cent of New Brunswick’s annual healthcare budget has been aimed at mental health programs. What that means is in annual budgets ranging between $2.5 and $3 billion, 2020/21 is the first year to see $10 million allocated to mental health programs. Whether that money is spent remains to be seen.
“So much change needs to be made,” said Moore. “The system isn’t just broken, it’s shattered.
“To start, we need to educate those currently in the healthcare system about the depths of mental illness and the risks they pose to those affected, and how important it is to take people seriously, and take immediate action.
“Furthermore, the government needs to open up the cheque book and put more money into mental healthcare. We can’t expect counsellors, therapists, and other mental health professionals to want to come to a province where they will be underfunded, overworked and not appreciated. The saying ‘build it and they will come’ rings so true in this case,” Moore added.
But if we build it, will they come? Anderson-Mason is adamant on one point; what the mental health care framework is truly lacking in New Brunswick is personnel.
“Finding personnel is an issue,” said a frustrated Anderson-Mason.
“It’s an issue with which we struggle as a whole in the province. Mental health care is a component, and we not only need to attract professionals, we need to get them to stay.
“We’re good at bringing them in, but we have a hard time retaining people,” said Anderson-Mason.
“If what we’re lacking is personnel, how do we solve that problem?
“We have to make a concerted effort to fix this problem; and it might be bigger than we’ve ever realized,” she added.
“Mental health care all across Canada needs to be improved, but New Brunswick just always seems to be five years behind everywhere else,” said Moore. While attending Ryerson University in Toronto, Moore was struck by the stark contrast between his access to mental health assistance there in comparison to New Brunswick.
“While I was in Toronto for university, I had access to mental health care in one way or another 24 hours a day,” said Moore. “In New Brunswick, it’s not uncommon for people to find themselves on wait lists longer than six months to see a mental health professional.
“I also had much more diversity in the different kinds of mental health care available to me. I could find what works for me instead of being limited to limited types of therapy from one or two counsellors in my area here in New Brunswick,” Moore added.
Recently, Minister of Health, Dorothy Shephard, unveiled a new five year mental health plan for the province. The ins and outs of the proposed plan can be found on the GNB website, but part of that proposal would see an additional 13 mental health clinics open across the province.
And while it’s lauded as a positive step forward, Anderson-Mason rolled the conversation back to reality; who will operate these facilities?
“We can have clinics that we say will be open, but who is going to run those facilities?” asked Anderson-Mason. “Having the clinic doesn’t change access if we don’t have the personnel to keep centres like this open,” she added.
“The recent action plan is a step in the right direction, but with a target of five years for certain goals, we cannot lose sight of the immediate need to increase current resources for people in need today,” said Christa Baldwin, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) of New Brunswick. “We need to move away from the cost heavy reliance on acute care.
“The Public Health Care budget generally assigns 4 to 7 per cent to mental health,” said Baldwin. “This is unacceptable when we see the demand for service. CMHA is advocating for mental health parity in the health care budget, equal to physical health.
“Mental health is a human right equal to physical health.
“The system is archaic in many ways and we need a transformed system that is person-centered,” she added.
“One thing we know for sure is it’s (the health care system) not working as it is. We can’t maintain the status quo,” said Anderson-Mason.
“Do I think every community needs to have its own mental health clinic? No, but what we do need is a system that works.
“We need to talk about fundamental change to government structure. It’s important that we have the conversations,” she added.
“People can recover with the right services,” said Baldwin, “and we have a responsibility, all of us, to not lose the momentum that is in our province now advocating for change.”
And advocating for change is what Moore is doing.
“Make the fight for mental health care personal,” said Moore.
“Mental health affects us all in some way, even if you feel happy with your mental health there are people in your life who are fighting every day – some in silence because of the stigma and lack of care here in the province.
“One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness this year,” said Moore, and Baldwin supports the statement.
“If you do the math, that’s over 155,000 New Brunswickers who should have easy access to the help they need,” said Moore.
“I encourage everyone to write or call your local MLA, and ask them what they’re doing to specifically help further mental health care reform in the province, how they plan on increasing mental health resources within the province, and how they plan on reducing wait times for mental health crisis care in our ER’s,” Moore added.
And Anderson-Mason echoed Moore’s sentiment. She said one of the most important things New Brunswickers can do is contact their local representative and communicate what they feel are the important issues that MLA needs to tackle.
“We try to keep our ear to the ground,” said Anderson-Mason, “but we can end up in a bubble. Being informed by my constituents motivates me every day to get out of bed, and post on social media. It motivates me to continue to put pressure where pressure needs to be put.
“It’s important to reach out to your elected people so they know what’s important to you.”
And while longtime New Brunswick mental health advocate, and provincial Child and Youth advocate, Norm Bosse, a man in whom Anderson-Mason has ultimate faith and says will be transparent with his findings, has said he will conduct his own investigation into the events surrounding Daken’s death, Public Health has not said the same. Shephard has indicated any review of Daken’s case by the department of health will take place internally.
“There’s no better person to do it,” said Anderson-Mason of Bosse. “He’s not going to run and hide from this.
“If I thought the job wasn’t going to get done, I would be vocal, but I have confidence the job will get done.”
“Ultimately, what we want to see is the public be allowed to follow the investigation (into Daken’s death) and have the inquiry be conducted in as unbiased an environment as possible,” said Moore.
“The government wants to do an internal investigation, but I think it’s pretty obvious, even to some 22-year-old with a mental health podcast, that a broken system can’t be expected to evaluate itself unbiasedly. We want to see the government make change, not give themselves a little slap on the wrist and continue on business as usual,” he added.
If you need help, Baldwin said there are resources available locally.
“There are mental health services available in your area through the Mental Health and Addictions Centre/Horizon,” said Baldwin.
“There are community organizations like CMHA that offer services, as well for people through our Community Program Coordinator program and Working: Stronger Together Employment program. CMHA of New Brunswick also has a number of online services, as we had to pivot last March due to the pandemic to online platforms.
“These online services are available to anyone in the province. CMHA of New Brunswick is seeking funding through proposals to increase our work in the area.”
“There’s urgency for change for the mental health system,” said Anderson-Mason.
“There is urgency for Lexi’s family.”