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Mandate pushes mental health and addiction minister to expand support in schools | CBC News


Alberta’s premier wants her mental health and addiction minister to expand help for children and youth in Alberta schools and communities.

Premier Danielle Smith’s mandate letter to Minister Daniel Williams instructs him to bring United Conservative Party election promises to life, including the creation of four new inpatient mental wellness centres for youth.

“We recognize that prevention and caring for youth is the best way for us to deal with this as a system, as a province, and as society,” Williams said in a Wednesday interview.

During the May provincial election, the UCP campaigned on building four 30-bed “youth centres of excellence” in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge to specialize in addiction recovery and healing from trauma.

Smith also instructed Williams to increase the number of “mental health classrooms” in the province’s schools to 60 from the current 20. The specialized in-school programs help youth continue their education while grappling with severe mental health challenges. In addition to a teacher, students have access to a psychiatrist, mental health therapist, nurse, speech language pathologist and other health-care workers.

Smith also wants Williams to expand a program for students with less intensive needs that offers meal programs, social and health-care workers and police officers stationed in “high needs” schools.

Williams will also fund First Nations and Métis schools to design mental health programs appropriate for their communities, the letter says.

School trustee says, ‘We are in crisis mode’

School board leaders have long been advocating for the provincial government to better equip them to cope with increasing numbers of students with mental health problems.

“It’s a crisis,” said Dennis MacNeil, president of the Public School Boards Association of Alberta, in a Wednesday interview. “We are in crisis mode. It’s another epidemic.”

MacNeil, who is also a school trustee with Athabasca-based Aspen View Public Schools, said three youth in his community have recently taken their own lives.

School staff, students and their families are all dealing with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

The education ministry has already funded some mental health pilot projects across the province. MacNeil said the successful ones should be scaled up and replicated widely.

MacNeil is happy to see the government plan further investments in school-based mental health programs. However, he isn’t sure what a “mental health classroom” is, and questions how much of a difference 60 programs will make in a province with thousands of schools and 766,000 students.

He sees training and recruiting personnel — particularly in rural areas — as the biggest area of need.

A speech language pathologist in his area might only see two students a day because the rest of their time is spent driving, he said.

MacNeil wants the government to offer incentives to train people willing to specialize in education and mental health careers who commit to remaining in rural communities.

The minister of advanced education has a mandate to spend $4 million more per year to create more mental health professional training spaces in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions.

Forced treatment could take years to take effect

Williams must also bring to life what would be Canada’s first law allowing a judge to force an adult into addictions treatment.

Termed “compassionate intervention” legislation, Williams said it will take a year or two to consult, propose and pass legislation, and write regulations to guide how the process would work.

A man is pictured at a press conference.
Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams, pictured at a July event announcing construction of a recovery community in Siksika Nation. (CBC)

Intended as a last resort for people who “are a danger to themselves or others,” the premier’s idea is to allow family members or health-care workers to apply to a judge to order a person into addiction treatment.

Williams said similar laws already exist for minors and for people experiencing severe mental health problems. He said society has a moral obligation to care for those most affected by addiction.

“We want to make sure that we have prudential and rigorous safeguards, to make sure that civil liberties are protected,” he said.

Critics of the approach say it raises ethical quandaries, could grow vulnerable people’s distrust of the medical system, and could lead people to relapse and overdose when released.

In a news release, Friends of Medicare executive director Chris Gallaway says Alberta’s emphasis on an addiction recovery model that requires sobriety has been ineffective in tackling an epidemic of opioid poisoning deaths.

Gallaway says he’s disappointed to see the government adhere to this direction without expanding harm reduction approaches, such as supervised consumption sites.

“This is an unmitigated crisis and we need the new minister to start treating it like one,” Gallaway’s statement said.

Government data show more people have died in Alberta from opioid poisoning in the first five months of 2023 than in the same time period for any previous year on record.

Williams pointed to the pandemic, saying it delayed the government’s plans to act more quickly while catalyzing the addictions crisis.

He said there is no such thing as a “safe” supply of drugs, and that more progressive approaches have failed.

“Their best thinking has gotten us to the spot that we have today,” he said.


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