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Loss of evening mental health services has minor impact: Fraser Health

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan -
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan
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While people are no longer getting help for mental health issues during the evening, it's not because of a cut in funding or services.

"We're not saving anything, it's the same number of staff working the same number of hours, just at a different time of day," said Denyse Houde, Fraser Health's director of clinical programs, told council Monday.

As of Sept. 1, evening mental health clinics, some of which were open twice a week until 8 p.m., were phased out in Surrey, Langley, New Westminster, Tri-Cities, White Rock and Burnaby. The clinics accepted walk-in clients as well as those referred by doctors, and provided counselling, help administering medication and group therapy. Those and other services are now only available between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

The B.C. Nurses Union raised the alarm, saying the changes would leave people unable to access much-needed mental health services. The move comes at a time when Metro Vancouver mayors and police chiefs across Canada are calling for better such services for people who otherwise end up having to be dealt with by police.

In Burnaby, the latest hours the services had been operating was until 6:30 p.m. twice a week, said Pam Vickram, manager of Burnaby Mental Health and Substance Use.

Houde said the changes affected 16 clients who were in a support group for people who were transitioning out of treatment and four clients who received individual counselling.

"These were working people, individuals with milder cases of depression, anxiety, not the people who come to the attention of police and act out on the street," Houde said. "I can guarantee you, these are not those kinds of clients."

The clients were offered lunchtime or 4 p.m. appointments to mitigate the impact, but those in the larger group chose not to continue as they had already completed treatment, Vikram said.

The change was made partly to standardize operating hours across the region, since hours varied widely among clinics, and to ensure staffing was available when demand for services was highest, Houde explained. The later hours meant staff had to take time off to make up for it, which made them unavailable some days.

Coun. Colleen Jordan called it a "bureaucratic decision" that didn't consider the needs of the community.

"This is not a 9 to 5 world anymore."

Houde stressed the decision was not made lightly. Limited resources are now targeting the majority which need services.

There are 1,475 mental health clients being served in Burnaby, she said, and "16 to 20 accessed [services] in the evening because it was more convenient for them.

"I think we're acting responsibly. It was the responsible decision to make to serve the clients who need it."

In response to a suggestion that clinics in different municipalities have different hours to make sure services are accessible somewhere at all hours, she noted that people with mental illness tend not to travel far from home.

A suggestion by Coun. Pietro Calendino to stagger staff shifts to allow evening hours was a good one, she said, something that could be considered but would need to be negotiated with staff.

"We're not saying we're not going to reintroduce evening hours in the future, but we need to do it in a more standardized, equitable way," she said.

Mayor Derek Corrigan pointed out that the reason for council's interest is "because it has a direct impact on city services," referring to Burnaby RCMP having to deal with an increasing number of calls related to mental health issues.

"The message from me as mayor is it's not good enough, it's just not good enough," Corrigan said.

"We're spending money foolishly to deal with a problem that's out of our control."

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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