Work ongoing to improve mental health services in rural Yukon, officials tell committee

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The Yukon Legislative Assembly building in Whitehorse. The assembly's standing committee on public accounts received an update on Aug. 18 from health officials on their response to a report by the Auditor General of Canada on mental health services in rural Yukon.  (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC - image credit)
The Yukon Legislative Assembly building in Whitehorse. The assembly's standing committee on public accounts received an update on Aug. 18 from health officials on their response to a report by the Auditor General of Canada on mental health services in rural Yukon. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC - image credit)

The Yukon's health department has made strides in addressing issues with mental health services in rural communities but still has much work ahead, a committee heard at a progress update Wednesday.

Department officials, including deputy minister Stephen Samis, appeared before the Yukon Legislative Assembly's standing committee on public accounts to speak about their response so far to an Auditor General of Canada report released in June.

The report, based on an audit covering May 2016 to September 2020, found that the department had successfully increased access to mental health services in rural communities during that timeframe by building mental wellness and substance use "hubs'' in Watson Lake, Carmacks, Haines Junction and Dawson City.

However, the report also found that the hubs were short-staffed and under-resourced, didn't always meet the needs of First Nations clients and weren't collecting feedback or other performance information.

The report made four recommendations for improvement — consulting regularly with communities to identify their needs, implementing a recruiting and retention strategy for mental health staff, creating a plan with First Nations on how to improve cultural safety, and developing a way to measure performance.

Samis told the committee that work was underway on all four fronts, in many cases starting before the report was publicly released.

The department, for example, established the population and public health evidence and evaluation branch in late 2020 tasked with developing a performance measurement plan, and will soon be launching a quarterly feedback survey for staff and clients. As well, it's working with the British Columbia-based San'yas: Indigenous Cultural Safety Training Program to develop a Yukon-specific program, and has also hired a human resources consultant to specifically aid with recruitment for rural mental health positions.

However, there are still gaps — while the department has hired 10 new rural mental health staff since fall 2020, only 25 out of 33 positions at community mental health hubs are currently filled. Not all staff have taken existing Yukon First Nations cultural training yet, despite it being mandatory, and, due to the lack of data, there's still no good way to gauge how well the hubs are serving their communities.

Committee member Kate White also urged the department to make sure that rural mental health staff were properly supported, too.

"[It's about] just making sure that we understand the realities for those people on the front line in communities and what works and what doesn't," she said.

White added, though, that she was supportive of the work that had happened so far.

"I can only see a future that's better going forward," she said.

Samis told the committee that the department was on-track to meet the auditor-general's recommendations — without needing any additional cash.

"We've been making changes as part of our existing budget," he said. "Right now, we don't really see the need for new funding required to continue addressing the recommendations."

The overall budget for community mental wellness and substance use hubs is just more than $3 million in the 2021-22 budget.

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