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Monday, May 04, 2009

Alberta Health Services observes Mental Health Week amidst controversy and questions

In difficult economic times, families must learn to cope with unexpected setbacks and everyday stressors by turning challenges into opportunities for growth. This is what Alberta Health Services (AHS) is calling “Building Family Resiliency,” and it’s the focus of the province’s annual Mental Health Week, which runs from May 4 to 9.

“Resiliency is the capacity to cope and feel competent in dealing with life’s adversity, challenges, disappointments and trauma,” explains Dr. Doug Watson, a psychiatrist with AHS Mental Health and Addiction. “Research shows resilient families rise above and persevere in the face of hardship or crisis, and are able to view themselves as well and healthy after dealing with adversity.”

According to AHS, healthy families tend to have specific social and psychological characteristics and traits including the following: commitment to each other; faith and values; frequent and positive communication; openness to others; adaptability; shared recreation; and strong social support networks.

In response to the requirements for healthy families, the Alberta government will be hosting family events and activities across the province.

But there is more to mental health than hotdogs and three-legged races in the park with the family, though.

In late April, NDP leader Brian Mason released a leaked report he says was covered up by the Alberta Tories because it reveals that the provinces’ mental health system is lagging far behind the national average.

“Mental illness takes loved ones from their families and saps billions from our economy. By smothering this report the Tories have again shown that they’re more interested in saving face than helping vulnerable Albertans,” Mason said.

The report, "Beyond Beds… to Balanced Mental Health Care," was leaked to the NDP after Alberta Health and Wellness refused the party's Freedom of Information request. According to Mason, the report shows that Alberta has four times fewer mental health beds than the national average, and that government has ignored recommendations to improve the system by decentralizing treatment.

According to the report – which was accepted and approved by government – the solution to mental health challenges is to integrate prevention and medical services with improved access to beds, housing and community-level supports.

“This report shows the government has known the solution for years, but has given it nothing but lip service,” said Mason.

But Mason's attack on the government doesn't seem to withstand scrutiny. The Alberta government has, in fact, given more than “lip service” to a plan for “decentralizing treatment.” The Western Standard reported in December 2007 the passage of Bill 31, which amended the Alberta Mental Health Act (MHA) to create a new tool for mental health workers called the Community Treatment Order which allows for early intervention and community-based treatment, meaning that some mental health sufferers will be treated in their homes rather than in a psychiatric ward.

The new amendments to the MHA, which the NDP supported with some misgivings, are nothing to celebrate, though. As the Western Standard reported at the time:

The main purpose of the current MHA--and legislation like it in virtually every jurisdiction in the world--is to ensure that the mentally ill get the help they need but will not necessarily submit to voluntarily. The law is also intended to keep the public safe from people whose behaviour is erratic and potentially dangerous.

The new amendments, however, represent a radical departure from the current practice in the province. The existing law requires doctors to prove that a mentally ill person is a danger to themselves or others before they can be institutionalized. The new law lowers that standard, requiring only that health care workers, not necessarily doctors, show that a person with previous mental health problems is demonstrating signs of deteriorating mental health. Even if someone has no history of violent behaviour, he or she can be forced to adhere to a drug regimen or submit to other treatments.

Mental Health Week presents an opportunity for a serious discussion of mental health policy – one that balances the rights and interests of the mentally ill with public safety. Let’s start this discussion by reassessing the changes to the MHA contained in Bill 31.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Posted by westernstandard on May 4, 2009 | Permalink


The main purpose of the current MHA--and legislation like it in virtually every jurisdiction in the world--is to ensure that --the-- mentally ill get the help they need but will not necessarily --submit-- to voluntarily.

You generalize about a "the" mentally ill, as if that generic were ethical, and then enters the term "submit."

Both suggestions are frightening. I have seen them both before.

Harold A. Maio

Posted by: Harold A. Maio | 2009-05-04 4:28:04 PM

That's the nature of mental health laws, Harold, and they are indeed frightening.

The laws are intended to force the mentally ill to submit to treatment. The justification for this use of force is public safety.

If we accept that justification, we should at least demand that those who are forced into treatment are actually a danger to themselves or others.

The newly amended Alberta MHC does not demand that this "dangerousness" criteria be met -- and this represents a threat to the civil liberties of the mentally ill.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-05-04 9:45:52 PM

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