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Open letter to B.C.'s Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson

'When someone struggling for help must leave the community in order to heal, this does not promote healing in place'
Drug addiction support
"As our children grow and develop the next generation of British Columbia, we are setting them up for the same failures our generation sees daily," writes Thomas Whitton.

I am writing to you as a concerned constituent, father and long time Northerner. I was looking into some of the pressing issues in the North, which includes the mental health and overdose crises which are very much afflicting our community. As I started to research, I focused on two separate perspectives of the crises: Where are we today and where are leaving our future generations. I have a son and daughter here in Fort St. John and the results I found were not only perplexing, but also wildly concerning.

To give some background into our region, we are what I would refer to as the “Hub” of the North. Anything in transit north or south travels through our home, leading to an exponential increase in transient population. We face less sunlight in the winter, and longer winters unlike the warm temperatures of the areas down south. Weather contributes to other struggles we have, such as the difficulty retaining professionals, violence or spousal abuse, boom-bust cycles, natural resource alienation, and the great “rural-urban divide” that seems to reinforce the nature of the divide. Northerners feel alienated from a large portion of our province.

On top of geographic issues, there is an inherent inability to recruit and retain professionals across the spectrum, from medical to policing. This hinders our ability as a community to grow and heal. The lack of medical professionals leads to a much longer wait time on diagnosis and puts up barriers to receiving all forms of assistance in a timely fashion. In your role, I am sure that you can appreciate the need for immediate help in a time of crisis. My brother has a developmental disability I can appreciate and relate back to the need for early detection of medical issues. Whether it is a mental disability, CPTSD, or any other issue affecting a person, dealing with these issues beforehand is far more productive and cost effective than dealing with them in those crisis points.

With our cyclical and resource-based economy, and as we saw in the 1980s and most recently in 2016, the oil and gas sector is affected not only by social issues. We also feel the turns of the global economy very intensely, as the oil and gas market was flooded with barrels valued at less then the cost of getting them out of the ground. People struggled to make mortgage payments and put food on the table for their families. At the current time, there are far less keys being handed into the bank, but there are still people struggling with addictions and mental health. This is a sign of a better time here, but we need more long-term support to help the people in Fort St. John address and mitigate the issues that are apparent before they turn into a crisis situation. These crisis points are different for everyone. As we saw this past year not everyone makes it through these situations alive and it's an extremely sad state.

What do the current mental health and addictions support in FSJ look like today? We have some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met working in the trenches for non-profits such as the Salvation Army, North East Native Advancing Society, and the Women’s Resource Society (to mention a few). These people take on the tasks and fill the holes left by the ministry, often with no more than a “thanks champ” from our province. In my life and past professions I’ve seen many instances forcing someone to tears, but watching someone cry because they cannot help someone in dire need is different. We have a modest bed count for reintegration into the community, which is run by the Salvation Army, but they are generally full. We have people trying to get help after a crisis point without having the beds to support them during or after recovery. We need to empower the not-for-profit organizations with the resources they need to do their work, and support them through everything that they do on a day-to-day basis.

When someone struggling for help must leave the community in order to heal, this does not promote healing in place. It removes someone from the family and support systems they need to be surrounded by. When these people come back from two weeks in Prince George but are unable to get the support they need at home, they will fall back into the same lifestyle again and again. This is not only a waste of taxpayers money, but also a huge strain on all of our emergency resources… As we ramp up the nursing program in Northern B.C., I would hope that your team is looking into some serious solutions on mental health and addictions for NEBC as the status quo does not work.

Moving into the COVID era was a scary time for a lot of people. My family has had some large adjustments to make, and we were some of the luckier few. This year and a half have put a massive light onto the fact that NEBC has been struggling for a long time, and no one in Victoria seems to want to address the issue. We have 54,000 people in our area, many struggling with mental health challenges or addiction. With these struggles being rampant, our closest recovery centres are either in Grande Prairie, Alberta, or Prince George, six hours away — neither of which seem to be the right solution for our area.

I have spoken with a few of my friends currently moving through recovery here in our local area, and I feel blessed to understand more about their struggles. While I feel more connected to them, I also feel alienated from the rest of the province, which already has programs in place to address these very serious issues outside of our area. Fort St. John and the area see daily struggles due to the economic, geographical, and social struggles and they are exacerbated by the clear lack of services, research, and information available for our slice of the province. Being considered as not even worthy of even retrieving data on the crisis going on here is just another slap in the proverbial face. Alas this seems like a last priority in the eyes of Northern Health which in turn, is the responsibility of the governing body to hold these organizations to account on their actions or lack thereof.

Will you stand up for the 54,000 people that struggle in silence every day? As our children grow and develop the next generation of British Columbia, we are setting them up for the same failures our generation sees daily. We now understand that dealing with mental health issues will lead to less critical issues in the future, but no one seems to take the bull by the horns. NEBC and a lot of rural B.C. are plagued with overworked and underappreciated emergency responders, this is not a failure of the front line, but of the organization above them — this is government.

We need to promote solutions that solve the issues that we see daily, this includes:

  • Social policing programs to lessen the burden on police officers & emergency rooms;
  • Promoting and funding restorative justice, which is wildly underfunded, again keeping police forces and people out of the courtrooms to increase the ability to deal with real issues;
  • Address mental health and addictions before it comes to that point, through education and prevention techniques. This won’t be bullet proof, but this is a start;
  • Put mental health and addictions supports in place, PROVINCE wide for mental health and addictions, not just in Vancouver. This will take the pressure off of emergency rooms and staff; and
  • Start helping the not for profits. These people cost less, are more flexible and are far more passionate about the issues they address.

I implore you, please take a moment to review the CDC information or lack thereof on our struggles up here in the North East. I ask that you consider how you would react if your kids, family, or anyone you know was going through a crisis moment in addictions, and the only option was sending them six hours away. After this journey, hoping that after they return, they would choose the hard path instead of the easy one.

I know in my heart, we have the ability as a community to help with these types of recoveries, with a surrounding area of 50K+ we need to start getting the data so the next generation can grow and not recover.

— Thomas Whitton, a concerned father, spouse, and friend, Fort St. John

Read Minister Malcolmson's response:

Minister Sheila Malcolmson Response re: mental health and addictions in northeast B.C. by AlaskaHighwayNews on Scribd


Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca