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Local MLAs frustrated: no response on mental health

NEW GLASGOW – Local MLAs are looking for answers regarding the mental health unit at the Aberdeen Hospital.

Pictou East MLA Tim Houston and fellow Conservative MLAs Karla MacFarlane and Pat Dunn have raised the issue several times in the provincial Legislature this week, but haven’t received any satisfactory answers about the situation. “There are no answers for people,” said Houston.

The short-stay mental health unit at the Aberdeen Hospital was closed in August due in part, to a shortage of both doctors and nurses for the unit. The closure was expected to last three months, but has now been closed for four months.

“It’s been four months now and there’s nothing in sight...” said Houston.

Thursday’s issue of The News carried a story about a Pictou County woman who was sent to Sydney for mental health treatment that wasn’t available locally due to the closure of the unit. She wasn’t admitted, and then was sent back to the area without any treatment. Her father, Roger Swarbrick, said the system failed her, and he called for the Aberdeen’s mental health unit to be reopened.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that didn’t have to turn out that way,” said MacFarlane, who has been in contact with the family.

She said she has heard from other Pictou West constituents who told her they’ve had to travel as far as Yarmouth for services. “It’s time for the government to correct the situation.”

Dr. Theresa Vienneau, clinical director of psychiatry at the Aberdeen Hospital, said in most cases patients have been admitted to a facility closer to their home community. “So far we’ve been able to find inpatient beds in the province in most cases close to home, but not in all cases.”

Referring to Swarbrick’s situation, Houston said: “If it’s the minister’s plan to have people assessed at the Aberdeen Hospital and then shuffled off to another location, there are a lot of problems with that. People should be able to get the services they need at the Aberdeen.”

He said moving around mentally ill patients “creates a lot of trauma for all involved. People will heal best when they’re in familiar situations with people they’re comfortable with.” 

Houston said he’s not convinced endeavours to hire new staff have been in earnest. “There doesn’t seem to be a serious effort to recruit,” said Houston.

Vienneau said jobs were posted and people applied, but because the number of staff needed hasn’t yet been determined, hirings haven’t taken place. “Part of the reason is we’re a position of uncertainty with respect to how we’re going to staff the unit due to more than one discipline.”

She added: “Prior to the closure we had been focusing our efforts in the recruitment of staff for the unit, and that effort continues.”

But MacFarlane worries that it’s the Health Department’s intention to keep the unit permanently closed. “I hope I eat my words.”

When the mental health unit was closed, a study was initiated regarding the services provided in the northern zone (Pictou, Cumberland and Colchester East Hants) and recommendations were supposed to be made to the province later in the summer or early fall.

When asked about the study, Vienneau said the information is being analyzed very carefully. “We’re actively working toward a solution that would provide the best and most appropriate care for patients in our county who have mental health issues,” she said.

MacFarlane would like answers now. “It’s time now to come out and tell the people of Pictou County.”

Houston said he and the other MLAs will continue to listen to people’s stories and relay them to the government. “We hear them and we understand, and we’re trying to make the government understand. I will make sure the people with the power to make changes have that information.”

Vienneau said it’s important for people to know that locally investments have been made in increased resources for improving the emergency care for patients who require mental health services. “It’s important for people to be reassured that they will still receive the appropriate care at the local emergency department if they’re in crisis,” she said.

“What I’m seeing now is reassuring in terms of care being provided through the emergency department for patients in mental health crisis. It’s superior to what we had before. Actions and assessments determine the next steps and if provided with the best possible care at the outset in the emergency department, we will receive better outcomes for our patients.”

Vienneau said mental health issues are often complex. “We want to help patients in the most vulnerable places in their lives, and it’s important to be provided locally,” she said. “We strive to provide the best possible care for all patients, but there are times when a small number of patients need specialized care that we may not be able to provide.”

Vienneau notes that a mental health mobile crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Through the phone service (1-888-429-8167), people can access support and advice.

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