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Tough times call for free access to mental health – Alberta NDP

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NDP Leader Rachel Notley

From the Alberta NDP

NDP CALLS FOR ALBERTANS TO HAVE ACCESS TO FIVE PROVINCIALLY FUNDED MENTAL HEALTH SESSIONS

Alberta’s NDP Official Opposition is calling on the provincial government to help all Albertans get through the incredibly difficult COVID-19 pandemic by making five mental health therapy sessions available through the provincial insurance plan, with an online assessment tool to help connect them with a mental health professional.

“Albertans have endured incredible stress throughout this year, from job losses to social isolation to the loss of loved ones,” said Rachel Notley, Leader of Alberta’s NDP Official Opposition. “Heading into the holidays, I know how painful it is that we won’t be able to gather with our friends and extended family. For many, the holidays are always tough, and this year will be especially hard.

“Many Albertans need someone to talk to and help them process everything they’ve been through in a healthy way.

The Opposition is calling on the provincial government to launch a simple online tool to help Albertans assess their mental health needs and then connect them to five provincially insured sessions with a registered healthcare provider. Using the provincial health care plan means no out-of-pocket costs for anyone with a provincial health number. While the cost of the recommendation will depend on Albertans’ uptake of the program, the Opposition recommends the government make a commitment to fund up to $100 million worth of mental health support.

Dr. Keith Dobson is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Calgary, as well as a senior consultant for the Opening Minds program of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.  He has been at the University of Calgary since 1989 in a variety of roles, including Head of Psychology and a member of the Board of Governors.  He is a recognized expert in the field of mental health and the development and delivery of psychological treatment programs.

“Mental health needs were largely unmet before the pandemic and have grown considerably since,” Dr. Dobson said. “Estimates are that rates of anxiety and depression have at least doubled since early 2020, and that rates of alcohol use and domestic violence have also increased. We have evidence-based psychological and counseling services that have been, and can be, delivered using technology. The College of Alberta Psychologists has well developed standards for the provision of this service, and there is an available pool of trained and qualified service providers. This initiative is timely and needs serious consideration by the government.”

Dr. Judi Malone, CEO of the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta, said all Albertans, regardless of income, should have access to psychological services.

“The psychological health and wellness of Albertans can be substantively improved by enhancing access to appropriate mental health treatment,” Malone said. “Community and family supports are invaluable but when psychotherapy is warranted it needs to be provided by qualified professionals. Cost is a barrier to access as there are few publicly funded psychological services.

“COVID-19 has impacted the psychological health of Albertans who were already reeling from our economic downturn,” Malone added. “We can avoid a psychological pandemic by investing in the psychological health and wellness of Albertans. Access to necessary psychological support was difficult before – and that need for the services of registered psychologists continues to grow. Without policies, programs, and services in place we cannot meet this impending demand.”

A recent study from Morneau-Shepell, a human resources firm, said Albertans reported the highest increase in stress levels of all Canadians in November. Albertans have reported some of the worst mental health in Canada throughout 2020, and currently have the third-worst, ahead of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Yesterday, on Human Rights Day, the Alberta Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, renewed its call for Albertans to have access to mental health care services in accordance with the five principles of Medicare: universal, comprehensive, accessible, portable and publicly administered. The expansion of services recommended by the Opposition would be an important step towards that goal in Alberta.

“The pandemic has made our lives much more difficult, and it’s also driven home how important it is to be proactive about our own health,” said Heather Sweet, Opposition Critic for Mental Health and Addiction. “This is an opportunity for the province to give Albertans the tools to do that. Over the past months, we have all gotten used to using an online tool to screen ourselves for the COVID-19 virus, and to be connected to testing services and health advice.

“Albertans should be able to assess their mental health at home, and have confidence that they will be connected to the help they need.”

 

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Alberta

Alberta announces combined $187 million in addictions and homelessness funding

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By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Alberta government has announced more than $124 million over two years for addiction and mental health services in Edmonton and Calgary, with another $63 million aimed at reducing homelessness in the province over the same period.

The funding for Edmonton and Calgary will go toward increasing treatment spaces while expanding addiction services, with $70 million earmarked for capital spending and $54 million to assist operations.

A 75-bed, co-ed long-term treatment facility is planned to be operational in Edmonton by the end of 2023, while a similar facility is to be built in Calgary by early 2024.

The $63 million is to support steps outlined in the government’s action plan on homelessness.

Premier Jason Kenney stressed his government’s recovery-based approach to the addictions issue when he announced the funding Saturday, calling British Columbia’s recent move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January “reckless.”

“In the area of addressing addictions, there are many that believe recovery is a false hope. It’s not possible, and instead what we should do is actually to facilitate dangerous addictions rather than to offer an off-ramp to freedom from addiction,” Kenney said during the announcement at Edmonton’s Herb Jamieson Centre.

“The whole point is to give people a fighting chance to escape from the grips of addiction so they have the opportunity to build a new, safe fulfilling life.

“Recovery works. It’s not a new concept or an untested Utopian theory,” he said.

Under the Alberta plan, the number of winter shelter spaces will be expanded in communities like Edmonton, Wetaskiwin and Lethbridge, and in rural communities where there is an urgent and unmet need.

All provincially funded shelters will also provide round-the-clock access seven days a week, while funding will be equalized between community-based organizations in Edmonton and Calgary.

The funding will include $5 million to create up to 450 additional shelter spots in Edmonton, bringing the number of emergency spaces in the city to over 1,000.

The plan also includes $2.5 million in 2022-2023 to test the so-called service hub model in two pilot programs in Calgary and Edmonton. These six-month long programs will connect people directly with support and services such as addictions recovery, housing and emergency financial support, beginning this fall.

Meanwhile, the addictions funding will be used to increase the ability of direct outreach teams through Edmonton police and Alberta Health Services to provide support and overdose prevention services. The same expansion of services will also be carried out in Calgary.

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee lauded the fact that housing options include support for mental health and addictions as he personally thanked Kenney for the new funding.

“This is the biggest single investment that I’ve ever seen over the course of my career in actually addressing the system versus putting more money into silos that are actually generating a lot of the problem,” McFee said at the announcement.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the funding would tackle the root causes of homelessness, and also praised the fact the province was delivering on a request to provide enhanced plans when prisoners are discharged from corrections facilities.

In July, the city requested a hub where social workers, firefighters and peace officers could work together to reduce crime and address a spike in violence downtown, in nearby Chinatown and and on the transit system.

“These investments show our collaborative approach is working, and together we are making life better for struggling Edmontonians,” Sohi said at the announcement.

But NDP Critic for Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson said in a news release that Kenney’s government has cut funding for housing, noting buildings that could have opened months ago are sitting empty because the government hasn’t provided operational funding.

“The money announced today does not even begin to address the deeper need for permanent supportive housing, social housing and affordable housing in this province,” she said.

According to the province, over 6,400 Albertans were experiencing homelessness— including nearly 4,000 using emergency shelters or on the streets — as of Jan. 31.

Alberta saw more than 1,600 opioid-related deaths in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

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Alberta

Five years later: Waterton Lakes National Park plan considers fire recovery

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Waterton – Like the land itself, a new management plan for Waterton Lakes National Park is marked by a powerful wildfire that tore through the southern Alberta park five years ago.

The 2022 plan, tabled in Parliament this summer, sets the park’s direction for the next decade. It includes dealing with climate change and invasive species and considers ways to strengthen Indigenous relationships and connect with Canadians.

The Kenow Wildfire, however, led to a major change from the previous plan. The fire burned more than 19,000 hectares — approximately 39 per cent — of the mountainous park in September 2017 and damaged many popular picnic areas, campgrounds and hiking trails.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate,” Parks Canada’s Locke Marshall, who’s the superintendent in Waterton, said in a recent interview. “We’ve had a lot of support from the federal government.”

Marshall said some of the damaged infrastructure was already being replaced before the fire, but other areas required a complete rebuild.

“There’s been a lot of work that has been done,” he said. “Initially, when the fire went through, our parkways were not available, so we had to work on them to get them ready to go.

“We lost our visitor centre, but we were already in plans to build a new one. Many of our picnic areas got damaged. We’ve done a lot of work on our trails.”

Some areas, such as roads and bridges around Red Rock Canyon, are still being rebuilt and the Crandell Mountain campground is still under construction, he said.

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in B.C. and Canada Wildfire’s scientific director, said the fire also affected a lot of the park’s natural landscape.

“It burned a good chunk of the park with high-intensity severity,” he said. “The effect on the vegetation and the soil was severe because it was hot and dry.”

Flannigan said he’s interested to learn more about how the ecosystem has recovered in the park in the five years since the fire.

“I’m hoping Waterton uses this as an educational opportunity to inform the public about fires and regeneration and biodiversity and wildlife,” he said, noting there can be positive changes.

Marshall said Parks Canada has learned a lot and will continue to learn from the wildfire through various research projects.

“This has probably been an opportunity that we really haven’t seen in the past — and that’s just to see what the effects of a widespread fire, a fairly intense fire, has on a landscape and how the landscape itself recovers from it,” he said. “And also how that recovery may be affected by changes to the climate that we’ve seen in the last several decades.

“So, it’s a really good opportunity for science.”

The research, he said, could take decades to complete. He noted there’s already some visible changes in the forests.

“There has been a bit of a transformation,” he said. “A lot of the forests were predominantly conifers — pine, spruce, Douglas fir. In some places … we’re seeing more aspen trees, shrubs and in some places … because of a drier, warmer climate, we may see areas that were once forested will be open meadows now.

“There’s definitely a change in the landscape.”

The plan notes the fire also revealed more than 70 new archeological sites and expanded 170 known sites in the area that burned.

“It was a really good opportunity for some of that archeological work to be done,” Marshall said.

“We’ve been able to involve our nearby Indigenous communities, in particular members of the Blackfoot Confederacy — the Kainai and Piikani — in looking at that landscape and seeing it in the context of their traditional knowledge of the use of the place.”

Marshall said they continue to work with the communities to document the sites, which the plan suggests will be complete by 2025.

Overall, he said, the new management plan shows the agency’s ongoing commitment to protecting the park.

“It deals with the fire,” said Marshall, “but it also deals with our day-to-day operations related to visitation and how we manage the ecological and cultural integrity of the place.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary. Follow @cderworiz on Twitter.

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