A look at the addiction and mental health issues facing Cape Breton Island

Time and time again, the rugged beauty of Cape Breton has been highlighted as a top travel destination for visitors around the world.

Yet the hearty landscape and the welcoming nature of the people masks the on-going struggle many communities face to access mental health services to help overcome a national overdose crisis.

“We give out 620,000 syringes [annually] which are even higher rates of needle distribution than they do in Metro [Halifax],” said Christine Porter, director of the ALLY Centre of Cape Breton.

Since January 2016, over 8,000 people died in Canada due to opioid-related overdose deaths.

In the first quarter of 2018, 17 people have died in Nova Scotia according to Health Canada statistics.

These harm reduction supplies are provided to people to help reduce the spread of potentially life-threatening diseases.

The opioid crisis is described as a complex public health issue that has been linked to the widespread increase in opioid prescriptions for medical treatment.

Research shows that in the mid-2000s, there were significant increases in prescriptions for high-dose opioids in patients.

While prescribing guidelines have since been overhauled to better manage widespread dependency, health officials have linked rising overdose deaths to another deadly element, illicit fentanyl.

Investments in treatment for addiction

In the midst of a national opioid crisis, the Nova Scotia government has invested heavily in an opioid use and overdose response plan.

One area of increased funding has been in community-based harm reduction organizations like the Ally Centre.

This fiscal year, $453,000 is being given to the Ally Centre.

Other investments in addiction services have seen a major decrease in wait times for people seeking treatment to opioid dependency.

Porter praises the progress that’s been made but says it’s just the tip of the recovery iceberg.

“Since this opioid crisis, we’ve had great response with treatment. So, rapid access to methadone and suboxone. However, you’re getting all these numbers of people who are on treatment which is a wonderful, wonderful thing but the lack of mental health care, so psychiatrists, clinical therapists, it’s such a rare thing,” Porter said.

A gap between addiction treatment and follow-up care

The wait time website for mental health services for adults hasn’t been updated by the Nova Scotia Health Authority [NSHA] since September 2017.

The wait at that time was 363 days for those looking for services through the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

According to NSHA, technical issues surrounding a new website have been resolved and the updated site will be accessible by the end of November.

The health authority says emergency mental health cases are seen immediately and encourage people to call the Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-429-8167, or 911 if they’re experiencing a crisis.

Porter believes more resources need to be put in place to prevent people from reaching an emergency mental health state.

“They’re not getting at the underlying issues. A lot of trauma is involved in these people’s lives and they’re just trying to cover up and cope with the memories they have. Losing their children and their families and their jobs and their friends and just trying to cope with all that after getting treatment,” Porter said.

363 days is average wait time people wait to access mental health services at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital. The provincial health authority says those numbers haven’t been updated since September 2017 and a new website with current wait times is expected by the end of November.

The provincial health department says work is being done to fill psychiatrist vacancies in Cape Breton.

That work includes financial incentives for full-time psychiatrists recruited to work in eastern, northern and western zones of the province.

A new locum program is also underway to encourage psychiatrists to provide clinical services in communities experiencing shortages.

Porter says years of barriers in accessing continuing mental health care has led to people struggling to escape the confines of drug use.

“Because of the lack of psychiatrists here we have a lot of people who are going to primary healthcare services and walk-in clinics and places like that looking for the medication that they’ve been on for years and years and years. You know, nerve pills, benzodiazepines and what not, and they’re getting turned away because walk-in clinics aren’t allowed to prescribe that,” Porter said.

NSHA says work is being done to expand outpatient withdrawal management and people can self-refer to those programs by contacting central intake.

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