N.S. social workers call for systemic overhaul of the mental health and addiction services system

A new report released by the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers finds that social workers are largely dissatisfied with the current approach to mental health and addictions in the province and say the system needs to change.

The report interviewed social workers and supervisors, as well as those who have used mental health and addictions services in the province, and found that 98 per cent of respondents believed there needed to be changes to the current system.

“That’s kind of a wakeup call,” said Catrina Brown, principal researcher on the project.

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According to the report, there is currently too much emphasis on a biomedical model, which treats symptoms of individuals, which researchers say is more of a one-size-fits-all approach.

Those who were part of the project say this ignores the root causes of mental health and addictions, and also the expertise of social workers.

“When we move outside the biomedical model and we really look at the social conditions of people’s lives and the experiences they have, oftentimes issues of inequity and diversity play a huge role in shaping mental health struggles and concerns. Addressing poverty would be one of the main ways to do that,” said Brown.

Alec Stratford, the executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, says it’s also important to recognize that individuals are part of a larger community.

“We also have to be clear that we need to have a relational approach — recognize people are part of families, part of communities and part of society,” said Stratford.

The issue is addressed in the report’s 29 recommendations.

One such recommendation is to provide a guaranteed income for Nova Scotians.

The report notes that poverty, particularly among marginalized communities, plays a role in mental health, and those in poverty are more at risk of depression.

The report also finds that social workers have raised concerns about the lack of community services available to help those dealing with mental health and addiction issues, with 97 per cent of respondents saying they didn’t believe there were adequate resources in the community to support the well-being of their clients.

“This needs to be based on consultation with communities, so we need to be consulting with Nova Scotian Indigenous communities as well as African Nova Scotian communities about what they’d like to see as services,” said Brown.

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The report recommends the Department of Health and Wellness commit 10 per cent of its overall budget to mental health and addictions, which would be an investment of about $230 million. Current funding is about 6.7 per cent of the department’s budget.

The interviews and focus groups for this report were mostly conducted prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but researchers say that the pandemic has only exacerbated the need to address the current system for mental health and addictions.

“Anecdotally, there’s a lot of conversation about increased need for services at this time, that a lot of people experience tremendous stress, anxiety and depression being common, domestic violence has increased,” said Brown.

“But at the same time what we have is less services. We have dramatically less services during COVID.”

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