N.S. mental health budget largest in history, but advocates say more is needed

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At $336.5 million, it's the largest mental health budget in Nova Scotia's history. (Chanintorn.v/Shutterstock - image credit)
At $336.5 million, it's the largest mental health budget in Nova Scotia's history. (Chanintorn.v/Shutterstock - image credit)

Spending on mental health and addictions services is going up $19.2 million in Nova Scotia with a focus on increasing access across the province, but advocates say there's still a long way to go.

Based on recommendations from the World Health Organization, mental health and addictions spending should represent 10 per cent of a total health and wellness budget.

While the mental health budget of $336.5 million is the largest in the province's history, it's about 6.3 per cent of the estimated $5.3-billion budget for the Health and Wellness Department.

Alec Stratford, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, said the percentage was slightly higher — about 6.7 per cent — in last year's budget.

"I don't think that the investments will fundamentally change the model in which mental health is being delivered right now, which is where we need to see some core changes," he said.

New programming focuses on access

More than $12 million will go to developing new programming, including $5.9 million toward an action plan for virtual care for mental health and addictions services.

Another $1.3 million will be used to develop regional hubs for addiction services to be hosted at health authority locations. This includes creating new hubs as well as expanding services already available in some parts of the province.

The budget includes $5.9 million to develop an e-mental health and addictions action plan between Nova Scotia Health and the IWK.
The budget includes $5.9 million to develop an e-mental health and addictions action plan between Nova Scotia Health and the IWK.(Shutterstock)

"Certainly e-services and hubs allow for more folks to get that access, but access is only one part of the equation here," Stratford said.

Rural areas, in particular, don't offer many resources, said Heather Cameron Thomson.

"It's also hard when people are isolated or there's travel restrictions. There's a whole host of barriers and stigma really that is attached to mental health," said Cameron Thomson, who started a Facebook group last year as a way to connect and share music when the pandemic forced the province into lockdown.

In the year since, Ultimate Online Nova Scotia Kitchen Party has become an unofficial hub for people to share their mental health struggles and offer each other support.

The group, just shy of 275,000 members, has become a forum for discussions about isolation, addiction, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They are finding support from complete strangers. We see it play out in the comment section of the group every single day. And it's something quite extraordinary to witness," Cameron Thomson said.

Short-term vs. long-term help

Nova Scotia's health department will also work to develop a single-session therapy program, a $5-million investment, which will serve people with mild to moderate mental health issues.

But Stratford said focusing on quick solutions and not recognizing mental health as a long-term journey is where the province's approach to mental health support falls short.

"The focus is really on short-term interventions to alleviate immediate symptoms and suffering, and then to move you out to a community where you're kind of on your own," he said, adding the predominant models of mental health support in the province are filtered through an "efficiency lens."

Alec Stratford is the executive director the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, which regulates the profession in the province.
Alec Stratford is the executive director the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, which regulates the profession in the province.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

The college has been advocating for the province to adopt another model — what Stratford calls a "biopsychosocial" approach that considers social determinants of health, like income, social status, environment, and past experiences.

"We look at things like the impact of racism," he said, "so are we putting in strategic programs that will allow folks to address racism as a core impact on their mental health?"

He said programs like the Nova Scotia Brotherhood Initiative, a free program for Black men to access health care, remain largely underfunded. The program cost the province $180,000 annually when it was launched in 2016.

Stratford hopes some of these issues will be addressed through the Office of Mental Health and Addictions, which the province has set aside $1.5 million to establish.

The office will be staffed by 15 full-time employees, including addiction counsellors, psychologists and other mental health experts.

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