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Failure to appoint promised mental health advocate in N.B. 'a complete disgrace'

Paul Ouellet lobbied for years for the creation of a mental health advocate in the province but three years after a motion to establish the position passed, the Department of Health says it's not sure it's necessary. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC - image credit)
Paul Ouellet lobbied for years for the creation of a mental health advocate in the province but three years after a motion to establish the position passed, the Department of Health says it's not sure it's necessary. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC - image credit)

Paul Ouellet works every day at his kitchen table, surrounded by stacks of papers and handwritten notes.

This retired accountant, now in his 70s, has spent his adult life managing care for his three siblings who have schizophrenia.

Over the years, he has become an unofficial advocate for many in the Moncton area fighting to get the mental health and addictions treatment they need.

In 2019, he celebrated when the New Brunswick legislature unanimously passed a motion to appoint a mental health advocate, but more than three years later he is at a loss as to why it hasn't been budgeted for, nor acted upon.

WATCH | Nikki Kennedy shares her struggle with grief, addiction and explains why an advocate is long overdue

"Is it that they don't care?" he wonders. "I just don't understand. I don't understand — and what really bothers me and hurts me is who is suffering through all this? Each and every person in New Brunswick suffering from mental illness."

At the request of a past minister in the Blaine Higg's government, Ouellet even wrote a job description for the new position.

He envisioned an office with staff across the province who could investigate complaints, make recommendations, and review programs and policies for those with mental illness, including substance use disorder or addiction.

Province now says advocate might not be necessary

CBC News was not allowed to interview Health Minister Bruce Fitch.

Instead, spokesperson Adam Bowie sent an e-mail saying the Department of Health "is still considering the creation of a mental health advocate position, or whether that accountability and oversight is being provided by several existing resources."

It is a disgrace and a lack of respect — a great lack of respect to every person in New Brunswick suffering from mental illness. - Paul Ouellet

Bowie said the province already has an ombud and a child and youth advocate to hear concerns about mental health issues and hold government to account when it comes to "its promise to bolster and enhance mental health services."

"And it also has Psychiatric Patient Advocate Services, which ensures that New Brunswick's Mental Health Act is appropriately applied and that each section of the Act is respected," he wrote.

Psychiatric patient advocate services is a Department of Health office that offers advice and assistance to people detained in a psychiatric facility, and those who are involuntary patients in psychiatric facilities.

CBC
CBC

That response from the Department of Health was the first time Ouellet had heard that a mental health advocate may not be appointed.

"It is a disgrace and a lack of respect — a great lack of respect to every person in New Brunswick suffering from mental illness," Ouellet said, adding politicians have told him for years that the position is "going to happen," and "we just need to put things in place."

Ouellet said the ombud and the child and youth advocate are already busy, and the challenges for people suffering with mental illness and addiction are so great, a dedicated advocate is needed.

"Mental illness does not go away — will not go away. It's only getting worse. You have addiction, you have homelessness and you have mental illness. The problem is just getting much worse, much worse."   

Tragedy leads to addiction

Nikki Kennedy, 31, is one of many New Brunswickers Ouellet has helped to find the care they need to get better.

After struggling for eight years with an addiction to the drug known as "speed," she is convinced a permanent mental health advocate is long overdue.

Submitted by Nikki Kennedy
Submitted by Nikki Kennedy

The Moncton woman was a new mother when the unimaginable happened to her 17-month-old son.

"I wanted to be the best mom I could be for him, even though I was young," she said. "I really tried hard but unfortunately during a family barbecue he passed away accidentally. He drowned in my parents' pool."

Kennedy said the loss of her baby boy broke her.

"I stayed in my room for a very long time until everybody was telling me, 'You need to get up, you need to get out of the house.' But I didn't want to. I couldn't understand or comprehend how my son could be here one minute and then gone the next."

Submitted by Nikki Kennedy
Submitted by Nikki Kennedy

Kennedy turned to the powerful stimulant to cope. She said the amphetamine pills allowed her to get up and get through the day without crying. Soon, she was buying them by the hundreds and taking two or three every day.

During those years, she completed two college programs and worked, but Kennedy said her world "was caving in" and her health was deteriorating to the point that her hair was falling out "in chunks."

Advocate would be a life changer for many

Over eight years Kennedy went to detox three separate times, but without the help she needed after the seven-day stints, she always relapsed.

"Detox isn't actually a treatment centre. You don't learn how to cope with recovery or your everyday life," Kennedy explained. "Each time I would beg the nurses to allow me to stay longer, but unfortunately because of the wait list, they weren't able to let me stay."

Kennedy was offered weekly group counselling sessions, and the meeting times for Narcotics Anonymous, but said at that time she wasn't ready to share her story with a group. She asked for a long-term rehab program, but was told there were none available to her.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Eventually, Kennedy's family paid nearly $10,000 for a private, 28-day residential treatment program in Nova Scotia, which was the beginning of her recovery.

When she graduated, Paul Ouellet was there. When she relapsed, he advocated for her and she finally got a weekly, one-on-one appointment with a mental health counsellor.

Kennedy went to that first appointment after an overdose scare. She said the two events combined to finally change her life.

"That made me realize, wow, I would have literally let this addiction take my life," she said. "And that's kind of where things shifted. It was the day that I had my first meeting with the counsellor."

Kennedy believes New Brunswickers need as many mental health resources as possible, and said having someone who can advocate for individuals and navigate the system "would be a life changer for a lot of people."

"For me personally, it would have changed my life. It would have. Eight years of trying and and failing and trying and failing — it's so, so discouraging. And after awhile I really thought, am I going to be an addict — like in active addiction forever? Maybe this is all I can be."

'It's desperate out there'

Myra Leger, 75, calls Paul Ouellet "an angel in man's clothes."

The Moncton grandmother and retired nurse has adult children who suffer with mental illness.

She said they grew up in an abusive home. Eventually she packed them up and went to an emergency shelter, but decades later, two of her children still struggle.

"It's desperate out there," she said of trying to find a psychiatrist after she persuaded her son to stop sleeping in his car and move to a shelter.

"I tried to get my son [a psychiatrist] a year ago, and I was informed that it's going to be six years to see him."

Leger is trying to "hang in there," and said it is Ouellet who helped her son get in to see a counsellor. He is now stable enough to live with her, rather than in a shelter, while he searches for an apartment of his own.

Vanessa Blanch/CBC
Vanessa Blanch/CBC

"He was too lonesome … he was just hurting and he didn't have any money."

Leger said she prays for her kids to "be OK," and that she will be able to "make everything good for them" before she is gone.

"I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for God and Paul."

Leger said a mental health advocate is badly needed to fight for services for families like hers.

Government urged to 'look out for the people'

Ouellet said seeing people get the help they need, and get better, is what keeps him going.

He continues to work seven days a week from his dining room table, working to expand the mental health courts in the province, establish a long-term residential treatment program for women and of course, appoint a mental health advocate.

Pierre Fournier/CBC
Pierre Fournier/CBC

Kennedy said she is now strong enough to join that fight.

"There's not enough being done — please do what we elected you to do," she said when asked what message she would send to members of the Blaine Higgs government. "Look out for the people. We still have so many people that are struggling."