MLA touts her party's mental health plan

Mental health and addiction

“Come with me,” the mother on the other end of the phone cried. “Come with me to find my son. To the shelter, to the hospital, to the tents. Come with me to find him!”

What she couldn’t see were the tears that filled my eyes. Her desperate cries piercing through my helplessness. I am an MLA, shouldn’t I be able to help?

When the six complex care beds opened in Kelowna, my constituency assistant reached out immediately to find a bed for this mom’s son, but sadly they were filled before they even opened.

My journey trying to help the homeless crisis began 15 years ago as a builder, working with the City of Kelowna on its “Four Pillars” plan. The strategy was to create more affordable housing throughout the city, along with subsidized housing for those with greater need.

My work continued on the Interior Health Authority board, where I chaired the Special Priorities Committee that oversees mental health and substance use issues. During that time, I worked with our current mayor, Tom Dyas, on a downtown initiative to try to help with the overdose crisis.

It was then that I began to investigate the Portugal model of care, known as SICAD, and read about Dr. Joao Goulao’s work as the architect of that system of treatment.

I travelled to Portugal twice, in 2018 and last fall, to continue that investigation and try to understand more fully how its success in treatment, rehabilitation and care for the mentally ill was achieved.

As we are all aware, mental health and substance use are critical issues that affect individuals and families throughout British Columbia including here in Kelowna.

In 2022, nearly 2,300 people lost their lives in B.C. to their addictions, 87 people in Kelowna alone. Clearly, what the provincial government is doing is not working and the recent decriminalization of drugs without treatment is going to be disastrous.

Look no further than to Oregon to see how that has played out. After decriminalization, its (number of) overdose deaths rose.

In fairness, Portugal’s SICAD model includes decriminalization and safe supply, but that is not the focus.

In 2018, SICAD’s Goulao, spoke with the Vancouver Sun about the importance of treating drug use as a public health issue. He noted decriminalization is not enough, and comprehensive care and support must be in place to help individuals overcome their challenges and live healthy, productive lives.

That is why I am so excited about the announcement last week about how a Kevin Falcon-led B.C. Liberal government would resource mental health care and supports— more residential care, more treatment beds, more complex care and wrap-around services.

As someone who has long advocated for wrap-around supports, I know that this system of care is long overdue. Wrap-around supports are crucial for individuals with mental health challenges as they provide comprehensive care and services that address their unique needs. That includes access to health care, psychiatry, counselling, occupational and physical therapy, rehabilitation, housing, employment, and education, among other things.

It's not enough to simply decriminalize drug use, set up safe injection sites and ”wet” housing and hope for the best. We need to make sure that individuals have access to these additional supports they need to succeed and lead fulfilling lives.

We need a program that takes those experiencing homelessness to wholeness, and gives them community.

The Better is Possible plan announced by Falcon is the first plan I have seen that does that.

My question to you this week is this:

Do you support Kevin Falcon’s plan to address our mental health & addictions crisis?

I love hearing from you each week, and I read every email. You can email me at [email protected] or call my office at 250-712-3620.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Renee Merrifield is the BC United MLA for Kelowna - Mission and Opposition caucus whip and critic for Environment and Climate Change, Technology and Innovation and Citizens’ Services. She currently serves on the Select Standing Committee on Education as well.

A long-time resident of Kelowna, Renee started, and continues to lead, many businesses from construction and development to technology. Renee is a compassionate individual who cares about others in the community, believes in giving back and helping those in need through service.

She values your feedback and conversation, and can be reached at [email protected] or 250.712.3620

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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