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Mental health in the NWT: MLAs complain as new act delayed

Lengthy waits for treatment, delays to vital legislation and a lack of funding are damaging the mental health of Northwest Territories residents.

Those were the views expressed by a number of territorial MLAs at the legislature on Wednesday.

Jane Groenewegen, the MLA for Hay River South, led calls for urgent action on mental health with her own personal story.

Groenewegen said she was 26 years old when “my husband lost his job, we had to move into an unfinished house, we had a baby – the baby turned out to be a very sick baby – and my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died.

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“That was within a six-month period. I hit rock bottom.”

Groenewegen shared her story because, she said, “We need to understand that these incidents will occur. Some will last an entire lifetime. Some people will get help. We need to think outside the box.”

Groenewegen said mental health resources in the NWT were “stretched very, very thin”, a view echoed by other MLAs.

At the moment, Hay River residents can expect to wait up to four months for non-urgent mental health services. In Yellowknife, that figure is three months. (Urgent cases are seen within 24 hours.)

In the Tłı̨chǫ region, which is self-governed and provides its own mental health services, there is no wait at present.

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The territory’s current Mental Health Act – introduced in June 1985 – has long been pinpointed as the root cause of some issues with provision of services.

Read: What’s wrong with the Mental Health Act? (pdf)

The department of health is in the process of drafting a new Mental Health Act to replace the old act, which health minister Glen Abernethy admits is ‘archaic’ and obstructing many improvements.

However, Abernethy says the sheer size of the task in ‘fixing’ the act means it has been delayed, and is unlikely to come into effect until after the territorial election this fall.

Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny called the process of revamping the act “another continued barrier for better management of outcomes for those suffering”.

Abernethy said: “There are no quick fixes for the Mental Health Act. It is a significant act. It’s my hope and intent that that legislation will be passed early in the life of the Eighteenth Assembly [i.e. the next government following the election].

“This is something we take incredibly seriously and something we want to get done.

“The new act is going to give us the tools we need. We are moving forward as quickly and responsibly as we can to ensure we have an act which is right for the people of the Northwest Territories.”

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