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Calls for fresh approach from Saskatchewan’s first addictions, mental health minister

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WATCH: Addictions and mental health is new to the rural health and seniors portfolio – Dec 29, 2020

Advocates are flagging potential priorities for Saskatchewan’s first addictions and mental health minister.

Swift Current MLA Everett Hindley took on the title in November — an addition to the rural and remote health and seniors portfolio.

Read more: Premier Scott Moe names new Saskatchewan cabinet, 1st woman in over 30 years becomes deputy premier

“That helps to signify how important this area is for our government,” Hindley told Global News in an interview last month.

“It’s an issue that we’re going to be focusing on very much so into the future.”

While Hindley said he doesn’t have a concrete to-do list yet, addictions and mental health professionals have highlighted some priority areas.

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Responding to addictions crisis

The first step is fundamental: Keep people alive.

Overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Saskatchewan, more than quadrupling since 2010. As of Dec. 1, Saskatchewan’s coroner’s service had recorded 122 confirmed and 201 suspected overdose deaths.

Read more: Unanswered distress calls — Overdose response requires political will, community members say

Vidya Reddy, an education specialist with AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan, said the ministry must drive that statistic down.

“It’s a completely preventable cause of death,” Reddy said.

“It’s a much bigger challenge to curb addictions and to curb substance use, but we can definitely, definitely… reverse the overdose crisis.”

Reddy gave a nod to the province’s naloxone distribution program, but said overdose prevention sites (OPS) are the best path forward.

OPSs are like temporary, less-sophisticated supervised consumption sites (SCS), which can be set up quickly, Reddy said.

Read more: Regina friendship centre asks Sask. for permission to proceed with overdose prevention site

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He said they must be established across the province as a stopgap for the crisis.

“Then we can give those people who are dealing with the challenges of addiction a fair chance to overcome them,” Reddy said.

In the latest provincial budget, the government denied funding for the lone SCS in Saskatoon. The sites have been proven to save lives and connect people with appropriate treatment, according to Health Canada.

Local advocates have expressed frustration that the government won’t invest in the evidence-based strategy, despite its assertion that addictions response is a priority.

“We have to look at all the different options that are out there,” Hindley said.

“It’s something I look forward to getting more information on and that will help inform our decisions going forward, but yeah, I can understand the confusion.”

Preventing mental health crisis

The head of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Saskatoon said she hopes the province shifts to a preventive approach.

“This move to identify mental health as part of a ministerial responsibility… really signals, I hope, some investment in our community mental health system,” said Faith Bodnar, CMHA Saskatoon’s executive director.

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“We need to look at all parts of the mental health system and supports in our community and move the dial back so that we can be proactive.”

Bodnar said emergency intervention is crucial for those struggling with addiction, mental illness or both, but the province must provide support before people are in crisis.

“It’s not going to solve the entire problem just to have more beds,” she said, highlighting lengthy wait times for treatment.

Read more: Saskatchewan advocates, experts expect spike in mental health calls over holidays

Education, robust income assistance and affordable housing are key building blocks to wellness, Bodnar said.

“We need to look at housing as a primary way to support people to stabilize their lives,” she said.

“Many people with mental illness and mental health needs live in very precarious, unstable and oftentimes, very unsafe housing.”

‘The government is there to support’

Both Bodnar and Reddy praised the province for making addictions and mental illness cabinet focuses.

Hindley said he has begun consulting with stakeholders, and he’s keen to take their advice.

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“They’re the ones that are doing all the heavy lifting and the government is there to support that as much as we can,” he said.

He noted the province invested a record $435 million in mental health and addictions response in the latest budget.

“That being said, we know there’s more work to do because there continues to be some very discouraging stories sometimes,” he said.

“Leading up to next spring’s provincial budget, I think you’re going to see that this will continue to be a major source of investment for the government.”

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