Ministry exploring establishment of mental health advocate
Responding to concerns raised by a Prince George mental health group, a B.C. minister said the province is exploring establishing an independent advocate for mental health and addictions.
Judy Darcy, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, said in a statement sent to The Citizen that her ministry is in the process of creating a mental health and addictions strategy.
As part of this process, Darcy said that the ministry would “continue to further explore the role of independent advocates, considering all of the information provided by the Prince George Mental Health and Consumer Council, along with other community partners.” The Prince George Mental Health and Consumer Council, an organization composed of individuals who have experienced mental health services, has been advocating for the creation of the office of a mental health advocate for more than two years.
“I understand having a mental health advocate in place is critically important for some of our community partners,” Darcy said in the statement.
PGMHCC believes that an independent mental health advocate would be similar to that of the Office Representative of Children and Youth, which acts as both a watchdog and an advocate for all government-funded children and youth services in B.C.
Sandy Ramsay, a member of PGMHCC, said that many individuals living with mental illness often have difficulty navigating the various health and service agencies locally. Most such organizations also receive funding from Northern Health, which makes advocacy difficult.
“A mental health advocate has a different view of what’s happening from what the service provider is able to do,” Ramsay said.
Ramsay said that having an independent advocate would be particularly helpful to individuals who have been involuntarily detained under the Mental Health Act. This act allows physicians to order individuals to be admitted to mental health facilities if they believe the individual requires supervised treatment. Under the MHA, those who feel they have been improperly detained can have their case reviewed.
However, legal representation during these reviews is not always available.
“People are going into review panels without legal representation,” Ramsay said.
The Community Legal Assistance Society of B.C. released a report, entitled Operating in Darkness: BC’s Mental Health Act Detention System, in late November which recommended the establishment of an independent mental health advocate. The report found that detentions under the MHA increased from 11,937 to 20,008 per year since 2007 and that many individuals who have been detained have had their civil rights violated.
“It’s very hard for an individual who has experienced mental health detention to launch a lawsuit. They’re often trying to recover and cope with what happened to them,” said Laura Johnston, who wrote the report.
Johnston said the B.C. government had previously established an independent mental health advocate in 1998, following an investigation of the Riverview hospital in Coquitlam. The office lasted for three years before being dismantled in 2001 by the Gordon Campbell government. The office received more than 3,000 calls in the three years of its tenure and published yearly reports calling for improvements of mental health services in B.C.
Johnston said information about MHA detentions is often not systematically recorded by health authorities in B.C.
“One of the things that really alarmed me through that research is constantly getting the answers ‘we don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know,’” Johnston said.
Maureen Davis, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Prince George Branch, said her office has received inquiries from individuals or family members seeking legal assistance with MHA reviews. The organization has provided referrals but has often been unable to assist these individuals due to a lack of resources.
“Most of the time people end up having to represent themselves,” Davis said.
Davis said having a level of oversight of mental health detentions would be a welcome change in B.C. She said that legal aid representatives for these panels are often few and far between in the North.
“Finding someone is virtually impossible,” she said.