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B.C.’s mental health crisis is bad and getting worse

Nearly half of British Columbians polled said their mental health was worse due to COVID-19

By Bruce Cameron, Black Press Political Affairs Columnist

Thankfully British Columbians don’t face hazards such as icebergs in shipping lanes, unlike Canadians on the east coast. But we have our own version of an iceberg, and we are steaming straight toward it with too few lifeboats. The mental health crisis in B.C. looks large and dangerous, but like an iceberg, only about 10 per cent of the hazard is visible above the water. Millions of people are in danger and the problem grows daily. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates that about 17 per cent of the province (800,000 people) are currently experiencing a mental health or substance abuse issue. The economic toll this crisis inflicts on B.C. is conservatively estimated at $6.6 billion annually.

The pandemic has made a bad situation worse. An Insights West poll for Pacific Blue Cross in January 2021 indicated that nearly half of British Columbians said their mental health was worse due to COVID-19. “The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the mental health and well-being of British Columbians that is proving to be wider reaching than the economic toll that we’ve experienced” said Insights West President Steve Mossop.

There is a perfect storm hitting B.C. in terms of mental health: anxiety and depression, made worse by the lingering effects of pandemic shut-downs and isolation; a surge in drug-related deaths; a squeeze on available psychiatric beds due to COVID-19 admittances and protocols; and a worrying rise in mental health crises among young and middle-aged residents. Not to mention the incredible mental health strain faced by first responders and emergency room staff.

Recently, a family emergency forced me to spend an entire weekend at a Vancouver emergency room ward. The horrific scale of the problem is heartbreaking. People lined up on stretchers in the hallways. Screams and yells from angry patients, some brought in under restraint by police to protect staff and patients. All the while, doctors, nurses and technicians going about their business with a hardened veneer of professionalism that is wearing dangerously thin. The human cost of the crisis is horrendous, but what worries me the most is the toll it must be taking on the professionals dealing with this tragedy.

We need an infusion of resources to tackle this crisis that societies only muster in times in war. Yet war it is.

Bruce Cameron (Black Press Media files)
Bruce Cameron (Black Press Media files)

The NDP government is saying all the right things. “More British Columbians are getting access to mental health and substance abuse services” through their new Pathway to Hope program. True. But the numbers are minuscule compared to the size of the problem: 41 new First Nations wellness and health initiatives in 166 communities, a Here2Talk service that was accessed 12,000 times in the past year, and an online Bounce Back program that referred over 7,000 youth for directed counselling and treatment. All good, yet it amounts to putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening head wound.

The B.C. government just reported that deaths due to drug toxicity (333 in August and September of 2021) are up an alarming 24 per cent since 2020. That’s the largest number ever recorded for those months in B.C.’s history. Whatever is being done is simply not enough.

The political ramifications are numerous and complex, like the confluence of factors that have created this mental health storm. The NDP blame the previous Liberal government for cutting funding. Judy Darcy, former NDP minister of mental health and addictions, put it bluntly: “They cut child protection and family development by $185 million. They cut $34.5 million from youth mental-health and prevention supports. They cut another $15.6 million from childhood development and special-needs services for children.”

Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon has been critical of the NDP approach, but he admits that as a senior minister in the Liberal government from 2001-2013, he “witnessed firsthand the continued failure of many well-intentioned addiction and mental-health programs in our province.”

“The failures cross party lines,” he says, “from Social Credit to B.C. Liberal and NDP governments.” He insists a more interventionist approach is needed—but the price tag won’t be small.

Yet, if we don’t change course, the tip of the iceberg we can see will sink the hopes and dreams of millions of British Columbians.

Bruce Cameron has been a pollster and strategist for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own consultancy, Return On Insight.

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